June 17, 2019
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Online privacy bill doesn’t really protect your privacy

Matt Rourke | AP
Matt Rourke | AP
The Google mobile phone icon is seen in Philadelphia, April 26, 2017.

Maine’s Legislature is expected to vote soon on an internet privacy bill. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal and a seemingly endless parade of massive data breaches, it’s easy to understand why state lawmakers feel compelled to act.

But there’s a big problem: the bill, LD 946, being considered won’t actually do much to protect online privacy. And for rural Mainers it could even complicate efforts to deliver high-speed internet to everyone in the first place.

Inexplicably, the bill doesn’t even apply to the massive search and social media companies whose tracking cookies, data profiles and artificial-intelligence algorithms have turned the internet into a virtual surveillance state. Facebook is currently facing billions of dollars in federal fines for repeatedly violating its customers’ privacy, and yet the privacy bill currently under consideration in Augusta would actually exempt Facebook from its consumer protection requirements. It’s hard to understand that logic.

Instead, it focuses narrowly only on internet access providers. I certainly have no problem with legislating clear safeguards to prevent internet service providers from selling customers’ browsing data. But those rules ought to apply to Facebook, too — after all it was the one caught handing private data for more than 50 million customers over to Cambridge Analytica.

It’s the legislative equivalent of the fire department pulling up to a burning barn and, instead of breaking out the hoses, deciding instead to install smoke detectors in the farmhouse across the street. It’s not that smoke detectors are a bad idea — but they’re certainly not going to help at all to put out the fire already burning!

Supporters of the bill have argued that internet service providers require greater scrutiny and privacy protections because consumers can’t effectively “opt out,” unlike with websites or apps. But as a practical matter no one can opt out of Google or Facebook either. These monopolies are practically indispensable, and even if you try to avoid them, you end up caught in their nearly-invisible web of back-office tracking and analytic services, which are present on 80 percent of websites.

There’s also a second big problem with the proposed privacy bill: it is a distraction from the pressing broadband connectivity and access crisis Maine is facing.

I’ve spent my entire career as an advocate for and organizer in rural communities, and for the past two decades broadband connectivity has consistently been one of the biggest issues that comes up in almost every conversation. Maine ranks last among New England states in broadband access, leaving the state’s rural communities at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting new jobs and keeping young residents from moving away. It is just the wrong time to add more friction to the vital job of broadband deployment in this state.

I don’t want to overstate the case by suggesting this privacy bill is single-handedly going to shut down efforts to close this digital divide. But math is math: every dollar an internet access provider spends hiring lawyers and compliance consultants to implement this new privacy bill is one fewer dollar available to put into the ground extending broadband networks into currently unserved areas. There’s certainly an honest, good-faith debate to be had as to whether the consumer benefits of the bill are worth that trade-off. But given that this “internet privacy bill” exempts the biggest users of data and won’t actually protect Mainers’ privacy on the internet, I’m skeptical those tradeoffs make sense.

Mainers deserve the assurance of knowing that their privacy will be respected and protected by every big company they interact with online. An inconsistent approach that creates different rules for different companies — and oddly chooses to let the worst online privacy offenders off the hook completely — just doesn’t make sense.

Lawmakers in Augusta should be applauded for recognizing the need for consumer privacy protections online. Unfortunately, this bill falls well short of what’s needed.

Niel Ritchie is director of the League of Rural Voters. He previously served as CEO of the Main Street Project and as a national organizer for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

 



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