Editorial

Congress hits ctrl-alt-del on your privacy

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Governments and legislative bodies often do profoundly stupid things.

But lately, it seems like we’ve been living through a veritable bumper crop of dumb.

There’s the multiple-car pileup that passes for our national debate on healthcare reform. Or consider the badly penned Russian family novel that is the Trump administration.

But in a little noticed vote this week, the U.S. Senate became the undisputed title-holders of dumb, undertaking an action so arrogant in its overreach, so profoundly offensive in its intent, and so violative of fundamental privacy rights that it’s a wonder that enraged voters aren’t marching on the Capitol, holding their iPhones aloft like torches.

If you missed it, here’s what happened: The Republican-controlled chamber gutted a key consumer protection and passed a bill that would allow your Internet-service provider to sell your browsing history to all comers.

Without your permission.

Let that one sink for a minute.

Every step you take on the Web, from shopping at Amazon and browsing headlines at, say NewsMax or MSNBC or PennLive or some other outlet, or playing an online game or listening to music, would be scraped from your browser history, tied into a convenient bundle and sold off, all the better for incredibly annoying advertisers to sell you stuff.

Without your say.

If this goes all the way, and there’s every indication right now that could happen, “that would be a crushing loss for online privacy,” Kate Tummarello of the pro-online privacy Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in a blog post.

That’s because “ISPs act as gatekeepers to the Internet, giving them incredible access to records of what you do online. They shouldn’t be able to profit off of the information about what you search for, read about, purchase, and more without your consent,” she wrote.

On the Senate floor, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, demonstrating a breathtaking lack of understanding of online issues, argued that the current rules “hurt job creators and stifle economic growth,” Ars Technica reported. He also made the laughable claim that the FCC regs forced the “government [to pick] winners and losers.”

I don’t know if Cornyn has been to Philly recently, but those plucky Mom-and-Pops Verizon and Comcast aren’t exactly struggling.

And the government, I hate to tell him, picks winners and losers all the time. That only becomes inconvenient when multi-billion-dollar business interests are breathing down your neck.

As The Verge reports, the rules were passed last year requiring ISPs (just like poor struggling job-creators Comcast and Verizon) to get customers’ permission before sharing personal information, like browsing history.

The ISPs, who see nothing but dollar signs in that treasure trove of data, have been pushing to have the rule administered by the Federal Communications Commission repealed.They saw their moment with the ascent of the even-more Republican Congress and the new Trump administration. And they ran with it.

The bill now goes to the U.S. House, where all it will take is one more vote to wipe out that protection entirely.

But, wait, you say: “I only visit sites like SupreCutePuppies.com and Isn’tLifeGreat.org, what do I have to fear from this? It’s only those who visit the darker, porn-y corners of web who should fear their browsing history being sold off to the highest bidder. And, anyway, there’s no such thing as privacy on the Internet anymore.”

And you might have a point - about all of that.

But keep in mind - a chamber whose membership’s average age is the same as your Grandma who still sends you emails in CAPS-lock and forwards you cute cat photos, just took away any and all say you had over what happens to your browsing data.

You want your data sold? That’s your business. The rest of us would like the right to opt-out, thank you very much.

And here’s the added bonus: The legislation that cleared the Senate would also bar the FCC from imposing a similar rule in the future when it will more than likely become clear that this is a disastrously stupid idea that only benefits those self-centered civet cats who want to profit off your data.

So the FCC can’t change its mind - even if it wants to.

As The Verge reports, “Assuming these rules get overturned, the FCC is going to have to formalize a new set of privacy requirements for internet providers. When that happens, it’s likely they’ll be quite similar to [the current] rules ---- banning ISPs from sharing information on children or their subscribers’ health ---- but without the restriction on sharing general web browsing history.”

If only there was a way to hit ctrl-alt-del on Congress...

© Copyright 2017 John L. Micek, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at jmicek@pennlive.com.