Your private information is not only vulnerable, it’s about to be put up for sale. Last week Congress voted to reverse an Obama-era internet privacy rule that might soon allow internet-service providers to sell their consumers’ data without permission. Considering that 48 percent of Americans have access to only one provider that even offers speeds that the Federal Communications Commission considers the minimum standard still satisfactory for consumers, the choice might soon be to either to accept the loss of privacy or stop using the internet. Alternatively, consumers could implement security measures, such as a Virtual Private Network, yet this is intimidating to nontechnical individuals, and the fact that they should have to do so in the first place is unreasonable.
Of course, there are two sides to every coin, so why did Republicans such as U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin vote in favor of this? Many have been quick to point at heavy lobbying. The Verge reported that they have received $57,550 and $47,500, respectively, in contributions from the telecommunications industry. Yet that aspect, and this debate, is only one component of a larger debate between internet-service providers and what are commonly known as “content providers.” Content providers are websites and services, such as Facebook and Amazon, that users visit, while internet-service providers, such as Time Warner Cable and Comcast, are the networks connecting users to the content providers. The two groups are at odds about what rights each one has and who should bear the burden of various costs. Notably, consumers usually side with the content providers.
Since all of the ads you see are already targeted at you, and the personalized spam mail never ends, why is this news? It’s common knowledge that large content providers engage in the morally questionable practice of selling user data. Yet, it has remained illegal for internet-service providers to sell user data, and for good reason. Congress is changing this policy in an attempt to level the financial playing field between internet-service providers and content providers. But attempts to standardize privacy policies across the industry should rise to meet higher consumer standards, not sink lower just to enforce the status quo. All that this policy will achieve is instituting an unpopular practice and entrenching an existing problem. It is bad for the market, and it is bad for consumers.
The nature of the access to consumer information that internet-service providers have is fundamentally different from content providers. Most notably, since half of the country lives in a de facto monopoly, they have no say in the matter since not using the internet is not realistic. Additionally, internet-service providers have access to all of your data. They know when you connect in the morning, from what geographical places and stores you connect throughout the day, your browsing history, nearly all the data you exchange with content providers you visit, and other eerily specific information. This grants them a much more intrusive look into consumers’ private lives. Those who voted for this rule repeal are quick to point out that data is made anonymous to a certain extent, however, critics question how effectively this is done and disapprove of the move regardless. And the Federal Communications Commission recently voted to halt a rule that obligates providers to inform their consumers when a security breach has occurred.
The only way this bill could be stopped now is by a veto from President Donald Trump. Yet, with loud issues such as immigration and health care reform before Congress, it’s unlikely this change will ever get the public attention it deserves. Unfortunately, this is only the first policy change expected under the new administration. The new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, is notorious for his stance on deregulation and siding with large internet-service providers, and Trump demonstrates an equal vigor to deregulate the industry.
The best we can hope for is that representatives’ constituents voice their privacy concerns loudly in time to stop this change before it is signed into law, otherwise the precedence of government backed grantees of privacy will be a relic of the past. Meanwhile, consumers are left with a question that Democratic U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano of Massachusetts eloquently phrased while addressing his colleagues in the House: “I have a simple question: what the heck are you thinking?”
Lucas Ashbaugh is graduate student in the School of Policy and International Affairs at the University of Maine in Orono, where he is obtaining a master’s degree in international security. He is president of the Cybersecurity Team at UMaine.