Politicians Have Voted to Fundamentally Alter Basic Internet Privacy

Basic internet privacy has become a partisan issue.

The rule used to be that internet service providers had to get a consumer’s explicit consent before sharing or selling their web history to third parties like advertisers. In what can only be perceived as a drastic sea change in how ISPs may harness this data in the future, the Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill on Thursday to specifically kill this rule. If the same bill also passes in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, then it will become formal law.

The vote went exactly down party lines, with 50 Republicans in favor of the bill and 48 Democrats against it. The robust broadband privacy regulations were put in place in October 2016 by a Democratic-led Federal Communications Commission. Now political opponents are using the powers afforded them under the Congressional Review Act to undo these regulations, literally making the transcripts of your online activity available for sale to the highest bidder.

This bill was introduced by Arizona Senator Jeff Flake under the rationale that it would “protect consumers from overreaching internet regulation.” This notion doesn’t sit with consumer advocates. Dallas Harris, policy fellow for consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, told the New York Times that “this vote is a huge step backwards in consumer protection writ large. The rules asked that when things were sensitive, an internet service provider asked permission first before collecting. That’s not a lot to ask.”

One displeased senator, Democrat Ed Markey of Massachusetts, says “ISP” now more accurately stands for “invading subscribing privacy,” or “information sold for profit.” He told the Times that “Senate Republicans just made it easier for Americans’ sensitive information about their health, finances, and families to be used, shared, and sold to the highest bidder without their permission.” Is there a way around this? The truth: Not unless you commit to using a public WiFi network, like at a library or a coffee shop. 

Let’s see what happens in the House...