Time to delete your porn folders, everybody
By Declan Murphy
Features and List Co-Editor
Your private internet history may no longer be private, thanks to Republicans in the Senate. The GOP voted last week to not enforce Obama-era rules concerning what internet providers can do with customers’ data. It’s a scary breach of privacy with wide-reaching consequences. But what does this really mean for us?
These new regulations—or, more accurately, deregulations—put sensitive information in jeopardy. Broadband providers may have access to user’s health data and, through their cell phones, where users go, what time they wake up, and so on. In a world where everyone’s connected all the time, the sheer amount of data available on each and every one of us is staggering. Now imagine that telecom companies have the power to harness that information. You can stop imagining that now, because under these new rules, that’s the unfortunate reality. Not only can internet providers collect this information, they can also sell it to advertisers, bolstering their profits at the expense of user privacy.
The Obama administration, and its FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, had been championing privacy and net neutrality. Under the Obama administration, net neutrality was narrowly upheld. The new administration, however, has no such intentions.
This is the first action that the now Republican-controlled Senate has taken with regards to the FCC, and it does not bode well.
Rolling back privacy is not a win for the users; it’s a win for corporations. Users were not demanding these changes be made. Rather, this is a result of lobbying by telecom companies who want access to even more user data. It’s indicative of a Republican-controlled Senate that has the interests of corporations at its heart.
This is, in fact, only the first action in a set of proposed deregulations. Already there is talk by Republicans of stripping down net neutrality, which was confirmed as law merely two years ago. Net neutrality is the principle that all internet providers have to treat all traffic the same. In other words, if you get Internet from Verizon, Verizon can’t choose to make its own websites load faster than, say, Netflix. You legally get the same speeds browsing Amazon as you would a friend’s blog on their own domain. If net neutrality were removed, corporations could grant more bandwidth to certain sites to promote them over others. For example, if Verizon chooses to slow down your friend’s jewelry website but privilege Etsy, users will prefer to use Etsy. It’s a subtle but insidious way to change behavior.
That is meant to be a light-hearted example, but the problem itself is quite serious. Telecom companies already have a near-monopoly on services, and customers suffer as a result. (Seriously, try calling Comcast customer services, like, ever.) Empowering them further is not only inconvenient, it’s outright dangerous.
Again, it’s important to view this as a program of deregulation instead of a single action. Trump’s FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, has already rolled back Lifeline, an FCC subsidy for low-income households to get Internet access. Pai is sympathetic to Republican objections to net neutrality, which seems like the next step. Beyond simply stripping away regulations, this also means there’s little hope of proposing new regulations—meaning the power of corporations can continue to grow.
There’s some hope that these changes won’t hold. Already the Senate’s vote to not protect users’ privacy has drawn outcry from constituents. (Cards against Humanity creator Max Temkin has said that as soon as the data is available, he will buy the Internet histories of every Senator who voted for these deregulations.) And, as net neutrality was ruled to be legal in a federal appeals court last year, there is hope to preserve net neutrality through the Court system.
Fortunately for us, it will be some time before the deregulations take effect. Most corporations were not collecting the full range of data that they can now, so it will take a while before they start doing so. Also, in theory, telecom companies will allow users to opt out of this data collection. However, skeptics worry that such options will be intentionally hard to find. Users can also choose to use VPNs to hide their data from companies, but such workarounds can be risky or expensive.
There’s no way around it: this is a scary invasion of privacy. If it continues as proposed, the level of surveillance by private companies will be truly unprecedented. And if deregulation continues as it has under Republicans, net neutrality may be next. So start worrying and watch what you search: Big Brother may be watching, and he looks a hell of a lot like Donald Trump.