As an April Fool’s Day prank, the adult site Pornhub trolled their visitors last Saturday with a truly frightening message. Folks stopping in to, ahem, access content, were treated to a popup which read, “THANKS FOR SHARING! Pornhub now has automatic video sharing to your social media accounts.” Folks that didn’t immediately keel over must have praised heaven that it was only a joke. Internet privacy is important for so many reasons, and not just because nobody needs to know your kinks except you. This is why so many Americans came out against a serious blow to internet privacy last week, when Congress passed a repeal of Obama-era protections and delivered it to Trump’s desk for a signature, if he isn’t too distracted by all his other scandals to actually govern.
The consumer protection that the Republican congress seeks to repeal would have required internet service providers (ISPs) to get their customers to opt-in before their sensitive data could be sold to third parties. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican appointed by Barack Obama and elevated to Chairman by Donald Trump, put the kibosh on the first provision already, so ISPs will no longer be faced with the prospect of having to keep customer data secure.
Rep. Mike Capuano (D-MA) speaking (entertainingly) about Republican efforts to roll back internet privacy protections, courtesy of Rep. Capuano
ISPs would be an important link for maintaining internet privacy, if that’s ever our goal again someday. Service providers such as AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast are the “tubes” through which we access the Internet. However, they’re not just inert conduits through which Google searches, banking data, cat pictures, and wank fodder flow. They’re also businesses with profit motives and (a-)morality codes of their own, just like any (corporate) person. That’s what worries internet privacy advocates, who suspect that ISPs would like to double-dip by selling services to customers, and selling customer data to other companies, maybe even the government.
The furor over this situation arrived fast and hard. As it turns out, plenty of folks don’t like the idea of just anyone snooping into their online activities. Max Temkin, creator of the popular game “Cards Against Humanity,” tweeted that if this repeal takes effect, he’d personally buy the browser history of everyone in Congress and make it public for all to see.
— Max Temkin (@MaxTemkin) March 27, 2017
Many States also started the ball rolling on some internet privacy measures of their own. Minnesota state Senator Ron Latz (of the Minnesota DFL party) introduced legislation to bar ISPs from selling customer data without consent. Republicans attacked this amendment but versions eventually passed through both houses and await the Governor’s signature. Illinois lawmakers are debating legislation that would inform consumers about what data points are being collected by companies like Facebook or Google. Nebraska and West Virginia have already passed laws to prevent companies from checking out their employees’ social media accounts, while Hawaii and Missouri are considering similar measures.
Other folks advocate for everyday citizens to set up their own VPNs, although for that to work, you still have to trust your VPN provider to not sell your data. There are various VPNs available, some free, some for a price. Clearly, we’re reaching a tipping point on public awareness of how much their internet privacy matters.
However, does it matter? For one thing, this recent rollback concerns rules that had not yet taken effect. As such, we’re keeping the status quo. Obama’s initiative would have meant greater protection for internet privacy, but foregoing an unrealized gain is not the same as losing a protection we already have. ISPs already have the power to sell our data (users currently must opt-out of having their data sold, instead of the proposed opt-in), but how many of us have bothered to do so? For their part, Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T have said that they won’t sell their customers’ individual browsing data, and if you trust that promise, it means that nothing will change for their users.
People should realize that their internet privacy is already a leaky sieve. Many websites regularly feed us tracking cookies that enable them to peek at our browsing history. (That’s why the Snuggie you considered buying on Amazon seems to follow you around the internet.) Websites collect our data with abandon. More importantly, Americans are already subject to warrantless monitoring of their electronic communications (even if it is incidental). You can thank the post-9/11 “War on Terror” and the freedoms that Americans pissed away in fear 16 years ago (while claiming that anyone who dissented was probably a terrorist) for that. We’ll probably never get those back, barring civilizational collapse.
Internet privacy in this day and age is probably a lost cause. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth fighting for, just like other noble lost causes, but perhaps that fight should take aim at other underlying problems. For one, this rule was repealed using the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which makes it much harder to propose similar rules in the future. The CRA was a small part of Newt Gingrich’s Contract
On With America in 1996, and had only been used once previously (by George W. Bush in 2001). Donald Trump has now used that law seven times in his efforts to hinder transparency, roll back protections for people, and cause havoc generally.
Else, we could turn away from the internet for the things we need. I know it’s hard to believe, but prior to about 1995, most people got their books from bookstores, did their banking at the bank, sent postal mail, and got their porn the old-fashioned way. There’s something to be said for finding workable solutions for our daily needs that don’t involve feeding corporations or the government as much of our data as we do currently. Now that’s real internet privacy!