Last Tuesday, the House flushed our Internet privacy down the toilet, following the Senate’s lead from the week before. Republicans, who love freedom—but apparently not internet privacy—voted unanimously to dismantle significant reforms that hadn’t even taken effect yet. These reforms would have stopped Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from selling consumer’s browsing history, geolocations, and social security numbers to advertisers and other data-hungry parties.
ISPs were sad because they were being discriminated against—or, at least, that’s how they saw it. The NCTA (The Internet and Television Association), a powerful telecom lobby, said, “We appreciate today’s Senate action to repeal unwarranted FCC rules that deny consumers consistent privacy protection online and violate competitive neutrality,” in a recent statement.
The subtext here is worth understanding. What they mean by “consistent privacy protection,” or the equally veiled and misleading “competitive neutrality,” is that ISPs, currently regulated by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), should be bound to the more lax FTC (Federal Trade Commission) rules which allow corporations to sell consumer data to the highest bidder. In other words, Comcast and Verizon (who make their money on monthly bills and hidden fees) should be entitled to the same profit flows as companies like Google and Facebook (whose business model is collecting our data and selling it to advertisers).
But there’s an important distinction. While your ISP sees everything you do online, the companies you interface with don’t. And besides, you can choose which websites you visit, but you often can’t choose your ISP. They are “basically arguing that roads are the same as the stores you drive to and should be regulated in the exact same way,” Candace Clement from the media advocacy organization Free Press put it to me in an email. This ultimately creates a paradigm where every little piece of online data, no matter how private, is available for sale to whoever wants to buy it.
Data for sale
Investigative journalist Lee Fang pointed out in The Intercept that two self-proclaimed civil rights groups “advocating” on behalf of Latin American and Asian American constituients told the FCC the following. “Many consumers, especially households with limited incomes, appreciate receiving relevant advertising that is keyed to their interests and provides them with discounts on the products and services they use.” He then noted that these two groups—LULAC and OCA—are funded by Comcast and other ISPs.
Even if this so-called advocacy is disingenuous at best, it reveals the predatory motives and aspirations of this un(der)tapped revenue stream. Practices—like digital redlining, data discrimination, and selling consumer data to law enforcement—is already underway and will continue to balloon as Internet privacy is scrapped.
Perhaps the reason ISPs are so jealous of companies like Facebook is because they have gotten filthy rich selling the most unethical data. Forbes wrote that “Mark Zuckerberg had the best year of all billionaires” in 2016, moving from the 16th to 6th richest person on the planet. This year, he is now the 5th, 1,229 notches above Brian Roberts of Comcast, according to the Forbes list.
But why is Facebook so rich? One way is described in a piece for The Nation, “How Companies Turn Your Facebook Activity Into a Credit Score: Welcome to the New Wild West of Data Collection Without Regulation.” Authors Astra Taylor and Jathan Sadowski explain the secret sauce ISPs are hoping to get their hands on. They write about one online company, ZestFinance, whose chilling motto “all data is credit data” is quite telling in the sheer scope of data collection that takes place these days. They go on to describe a two-tiered Facebook feed, where one segment of the population sees ads for payday loans and seedy for-profit colleges, and another sees them for American Express cards and fancy vacations. The authors note that these practices are nothing new compared to pre-digital incarnations of the same thing, but we volunteer that much more of our personal data online. Privacy regulations that could protect us have yet to earnestly materialize.
Malkia Cyril, from the Center for Media Justice notes, “We need to understand that data has historically been overused to repress dissidence, monitor perceived criminality, and perpetually maintain an impoverished underclass,” thus surveilling black and brown people disproportionately. This has also been a feature, not a bug, of social control in this country since the days of slavery, Cyril says in a brilliant essay for The Progressive. As you read this, ICE agents are out surveilling undocumented immigrants, adding to the “databases of suspicion” that seem to lead to the inevtable incarceration of the most marginalized segments of our population. And what happens in prison? People work. All those jobs Trump promised to “bring back” never left, they just moved to where the labor was cheaper.
Or take Robert Mercer, “The Reclusive Hedge Fund Billionaire”, who was instrumental in getting Trump elected. Before he invested millions into Breitbart and the psychographic data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica, he made his obscene fortune “through the innovative use of trading algorithms,” according to Jane Mayer in The New Yorker. It was his daughter Rebekah who helped Trump link up with Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. Though the technology has yet to fully develop, Cambridge Analytica seeks to mine data which is then used to create “psychographic” profiles of voters and target them with hyper-personalized political ads. No doubt slashing privacy only aids such efforts.
Speaking of Breitbart, they tried to spin the internet privacy vote as a refutation of Obama’s FCC and harped on the how the rules would now be applied “consistently.” But, as the writer and scholar Matt Stoller pointed out on Twitter, Breitbart readers in the comments section weren’t angry at Obama’s privacy rules, but the GOP who sold them out. He astutely noted how one user said “This is one of very few Obama-era regulations that should have stayed.” Another saw the connection between internet privacy and monopoly power. And another, in Stoller’s words, created “a sophisticated debate on the nature of public utility regulations in the Breitbart comments section.” He concluded that “It’s fascinating, when the political debates are about the use of concentrated business power, the debates are no longer as partisan.”
Clement, from Free Press, was quick to point out that Net Neutrality is next on the chopping the block. Trump and his cronies are united against it. “Having a win behind their backs could embolden them,” Clement wrote. “But they should also be scared—this was a pretty obscure issue that blew up in a very short amount of time. There were tens of thousands of phone calls sent into Congress in the final 48 hours before the House vote. Not a single Democrat voted in favor of this and there were 15 Republicans who voted against it. The opposition to any attacks on Net Neutrality will be fierce.” And perhaps bipartisan too.