Is the internet privacy controversy what it seems?
In late March 2017, the U.S. Congress voted to dismantle internet privacy rules voted upon by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in October 2016. The original FCC ruling would have stopped Internet Service Providers from collecting and selling browsing logs to advertisers without first obtaining permission from users. Instead, Congress overturned the rule, and the order was signed in early April 2017. The decision has created what can only be described as mass commotion across social media and many news outlets. Much of the outrage is unwarranted, though. The internet is useful, and even vital, in today’s world, but one of its pitfalls is the precarious dissemination of misinformation.
At first glance, you’d think it would be preferable to have a system where ISPs needed your go-ahead before sharing your data with advertisers. Yet in the grand scheme of things, the original FCC ruling, when eventually put into effect, would’ve been detrimental to the average person.
Yes, despite voting to strengthen internet protections, the new guidelines weren’t in motion when the House voted to roll them back. Consequently, our data is no less protected today than it was a month ago, a year ago or at the beginning of President Obama’s first term in office.
So why are we seeing headlines like these: “The Senate Prepares to Send Internet Privacy Down a Black Hole,” “Your browsing history may be up for sale soon. Here’s what you need to know” and “You Are Now Paying Internet Companies to Sell Your Browsing History to Advertisers”?
Reading these shock-inducing headlines, you’d think your internet activity rights and protections have suddenly vanished thanks to the complete invasion of your privacy by the big, bad government.
There’s a partisan slant to many of the pieces bemoaning the decision to overturn the FCC’s ruling, but regardless of politics we shouldn’t blindly buy what they’re selling. Unfortunately, many people are simply taking headlines like these and the incomplete truth they find in their Twitter timelines and running with it. A great many seem to think their browsing history will soon be a matter of public consumption. In fact, in late March, a number of individuals set up GoFundMe pages asking for money to buy the browsing histories of Congress members.
Supernatural actor Misha Collins raised more than $80,000 of his lofty $500 million goal, while a “privacy activist” from Tennessee amassed more than $200,000, far surpassing his initial $10,000 goal. These campaigns took donations for more than a month before they were shut off by their creators in early May. The reason they are not accepting additional donations at this time? The individuals raising funds, and the thousands of people who donated to these causes, seem to have been led astray.
You cannot buy Paul Ryan’s browsing history. Your data isn’t available for public consumption. You may not like that your ISP technically can sell your data to advertisers, but consider the alternative.
Writing in The National Review, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly broke down the justification for Congress and the president to overrule the FCC’s original plans. He presents the cold hard truth that, like it or not, the accumulation of data is how the internet persists. Take away the ability for companies to sell user data to advertisers and much of the internet, a vast interconnected web that is largely “free,” will either be concealed behind paywalls or disappear altogether. A substantial portion of money generated on the internet comes from pesky ads —and, yes, the ones that are sometimes eerily directed at your personal internet consumption.
From Google to YouTube to Facebook to almost every website you visit or application you use, revenue comes from ads. Even while using features that are ostensibly free to you, you are helping bolster a company’s revenue via ads, both targeted and mass produced. The vast swath of information available at your fingertips would be greatly diminished if data collection that is subsequently sold to advertisers ceased.
O’Rielly points out that when Congress used the Congressional Review Act to dismantle the privacy protections put in place by the FCC, the ruling applied to only broadband providers — the company that you pay for your internet service each month. When implemented, the protections would have stopped only your ISP from selling your data to advertisers. And here’s the thing: the majority of your information that is currently shared comes from companies like Google and Amazon and Facebook — the ones with the most access to your personal information, purchasing habits and browsing interests. Broadband providers, in practice, don’t have the means or even the inherent desire to share your data. They are already getting your monthly payments; large internet companies like Google are not.
While there’s a gray area on the nature of the information that broadband providers and internet companies alike actually collect, the overarching truth is that, in the vast majority of cases, the information shared with advertisers is personal but it’s not personal. For example, Amazon sees which books you look at and then you visit another site and see book covers that you recently browsed displayed in ad spots. Does Charter Spectrum, ATT or Verizon intend to share your deeply personal data with third-party advertisers? No, they do not, because that would be bad for business.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai speaks as Commissioner Mignon Clyburn (C) and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (R) look on during a meeting of the commissioners. KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
So why exactly did Congress change the FCC’s ruling?
In a Washington Post op-ed published on April 4, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai emphasized that Congress’ recent decision was made not just to counteract the restrictions placed on ISP, but to even the playing field in order to come to a more logical conclusion about internet privacy.
In 2015, the FCC, in a partisan-motivated vote, took control over internet privacy from the Federal Trade Commission, an organization with an abundance of experience in the matter. The reasoning, according to Pai, was that the internet had become a “public utility,” and the FCC was the more natural party to handle it as such. Previously, the FTC employed practices and standards that applied to both ISPs and internet companies. As mentioned above, the FCC’s 2016 decision to crack down on ISPs specifically broke from the FTC’s tried-and-true methods of controlling privacy consistently across all internet entities. If the new measures had been put into effect, the playing field of data collection would no longer have been level.
Now that Congress has acted, the FCC can either restore internet privacy power to the FTC, or Congress can take it a step further and review and revise current privacy measures to ensure the information internet companies circulate remains beneficial to both companies and, more importantly, the people.
Internet privacy is an important issue, and it certainly won’t be solved overnight. Still, there are other pressing issues to be concerned about online. Creating effective online passwords, with two-factor authentication when applicable, or using Google Authenticator or an RSA token can help fight a present threat to privacy: hackers. If we’re concerned about our privacy, we should be doing what we can to secure our data now.
At the end of the day, we have to realize we live in an era where the internet is virtually a necessity, and because of that, more information about ourselves than we may even know is out there for the taking.
In the Digital Age, we’ve sacrificed the traditional definition of privacy. While it may be disconcerting that your interests start popping up on every website you visit, just know that the information gleaned to make that happen is merely a silhouette of yourself. If we want to enjoy the freedom of information that the internet provides, that’s the price we have to pay — unless another, more sustainable model comes along.