Privacy protection on the internet has taken a beating in recent weeks. That much most people by now have heard. The short version taken from a spattering of news coverage and headlines – Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate have rolled back browsing information protection rules on internet service providers (ISP) enacted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) during the Obama Administration. Not getting much mention – members of Congress have now basically usurped some of the control over the internet out from under the FCC. Not good. And there are other concerns.
Let's get one thing straight coming out of the gate on this issue. None of us ever had any new privacy protection from internet service providers – i.e. Comcast, AT&T, and others – who supply us with internet access and have the ability to track and resell information about our online information (with the exception of our social security numbers), including history of our browsing activity. The now-defunct rules did not apply to social networks, like Facebook.
The rules that are now at the center of debate were adopted by the FCC during the Obama presidency, but were not scheduled to take effect until April of this year, if at all. The FCC chairman at the time was Tom Wheeler, who left shortly after adoption of the new regulations, and then the panel quickly put the protective rules on hold and some say would have continued with delayed implementation or rolled back the regulations themselves had Congress not entered the fray.
Basically the now defunct privacy protection rules would have forced ISP companies to get our permission before they could sell our browsing history to advertisers, although players in the ISP realm were quick in recent weeks to announce that they won't sell private browsing history. Right.
From the outside, many of us – myself included – probably have this view of the FCC as some distant Washington D.C. panel that generates rules when in reality it is a sizable independent agency of the federal government with nearly 1,800 employees and an annual budget of close to $400 million, funded by regulation fees. The panel itself comprises five positions appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate; with no political party having over three members represented on the commission.
During the Obama years there had been a push to maintain net or internet neutrality, where no one service provider could sell faster access to content providers. All users of the internet were guaranteed equal access and speed. A good thing. And the FCC, prodded by the administration, was working toward stronger rules to protect our privacy when we went online.
Long before Donald Trump arrived on the scene, Republicans in Washington complained about government "overreach," which has become codeword for minimal or no regulation of business on this and many other issues. So emboldened by the new administration, ISP rules to protect your internet privacy are out the window.
But what's worse, as the rules of the game are written, once Congress has rolled back a regulation promulgated by the FCC, they can never be enacted by the so-called independent agency again. So as long as the nation's capitol is completely controlled by the GOP, don't look for any move to revive these privacy protections. In fact, watch for the next battle over net neutrality, where higher speed access for content delivery goes to those with the most money to spend and be made in the process, thanks to the push by internet providers to become more dominant in the content creation side of the industry.
Remember that politics and money influence everything in Washington D.C. Not much moves without one or both of these factors. That might explain why Representatives Mike Bishop (R-Rochester, Rochester Hills) and Dave Trott (R- Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and a small southwest corner of Rochester Hills) – both of whom have basically just arrived in Congress – were among state Republicans jumping on the rollback bandwagon when it came to internet browsing privacy rules. From Comcast alone, Bishop has receive $40,500 in political contributions and Trott, $12,500. Then there is Representative Fred Upton, from the 6th district of Michigan, who has raked in over $108,000 from Comcast.
But enough about the sordid side of writing laws in the nation's Congress. Let's look at what is at stake with these rule changes.
The internet has become an indispensable part of both personal and business life. Much like the other means of communication, it should remain open to everyone on an equal basis and our activity on the internet should be free of monitoring, whether by ISP firms, social media outlets and the government.
But any hope of that has been dashed by the latest rules rollback. So while ISP concerns may say they won't resell our browsing history to advertisers, one has to question whether we feel safe with that unregulated assurance. I certainly don't.
After the rules were rolled back by Congress, we had a conversation with our long-time consultant on all things computer/internet/digital-related about the rollback of the internet browsing rules. While I would not place him in the category with the tin-foil hat crowd, he has even less faith or trust in big business and the government than this writer. His position is that there are a few options out there like the Virtual Private Network (VPN) or a TOR browser that could help shield our internet browsing activity – a major concern at a news organization – but there is no failsafe way of protecting our internet use. That makes the government regulations protecting our internet activity even more essential, and not just from annoying advertisements that invade our online space.
My greatest concern is the eventual violation of our online information privacy by the government. Don't think for a moment that is too farfetched.
Right now social media firms like Facebook, for example, sell your social media posting information to third party firms who then broker that information to advertisers so they can target you. Some firms in particular have been selling this social media monitoring information to hundreds of law enforcement firms around the country. Shades of something akin to the state police and Detroit police department Red Squad files (dossiers on anyone considered anti-government during the Vietnam War period) from the 1960's here in Michigan.
A true cause for concern – more than most people realize.