Technobabble: Your Internet history for sale

Internet privacy is under threat. / Photo courtesy beachmobjellies, Creative Commons
Internet privacy is under threat. / Photo courtesy beachmobjellies, Creative Commons

By Joshua Stair, political columnist

I try to avoid singling out a single political party for criticism, but last Thursday, Republicans in the Senate made it very difficult not to do so. The Senate voted to repeal Internet privacy rules which would have prevented Internet service providers (ISPs), from sharing or selling customers’ web browsing data to the highest bidder.

Senate Joint Resolution 34 was passed in a 50-48 vote. Sen. Jack Flake (R-Az.) sponsored the bill alongside 23 Republican co-sponsors. Flake argued that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had overstepped its bounds when it passed the rule in 2016.

Democratic lawmakers and many consumer advocacy groups have come out in opposition to the resolution, arguing that it would allow ISPs to sell or share your data with the government or other companies. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) argued on the Senate floor that the information was a “gold mine of data” for ISPs to profit from.

While the Democrats are certainly right in their assessments, they mischaracterize the issue somewhat. The Republican resolution will not cause a change in current policy, assuming it passes the House (which it almost certainly will). It will simply maintain the current rules. The 2016 FCC regulations would not have gone into effect until the end of this year. So to characterize this as a loss of privacy isn’t technically true. It’s simply a failure to gain more privacy.

And yes, that means that ISPs can currently sell your data to the highest bidder. However, this doesn’t change the fact this resolution is bad for the consumer, and bad for the average citizen. Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this resolution was how obvious it was that the ISPs bought the Republican votes.

According to an article on Vocativ, 22 of the Republican senators supporting the resolution have received over $1.7 million from the ISP industry since 2012. The fact that the vote took place completely along party lines, save for two Republicans who abstained, doesn’t make the situation look any better.

Hopefully this is not the start of a trend in the United States. The U.K. recently passed the “Investigatory Powers Bill,” which gives the government an insane level of surveillance over its own citizens.

Under the bill, which passed in November 2016, ISPs must hand over customer data to be stored for a year in a database. The police would then be able to access said database through a convenient “request filter,” which would essentially act as the government’s personal Google for private data. And all this can be done without a warrant.

Granted, the U.K. population has had a tendency to accept government surveillance more readily than most, with the widespread use of surveillance cameras throughout the country. But it is still a worrying instance of consumers giving up more internet privacy, one that hopefully won’t stand in the United States.

Unfortunately, this resolution is all but passed, with President Trump practically guaranteed to sign. The best hope for consumers is that voters do not forget about this resolution come midterm elections. The entire situation goes to show that not only can ISPs sell your data, they can also buy your Congress.

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