Your entire online footprint: now for sale
Trump signed a controversial bill to repeal protections that would have stopped internet service provider companies from collecting and selling online activity.
Though proponents say the repeal of this regulation will level the playing field between websites and internet service providers, privacy advocates warn it sets a precedent that may compromise people’s privacy, and turn the internet into a candy shop for big businesses.
“Today we are wading waist deep in the swamp,” Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said on the House Floor March 28. “The American people did not ask for this resolution. In fact, no company will even put its name behind this effort. Instead, this resolution is the result of an explicit written request from Washington lobbyists.”
The Federal Communications Commission created the rules in October while Obama was still in office, and the legislation was scheduled to go into effect this year. The protections would have required companies to request users’ permission, creating an opt-in system in order to allow private information, such as location, health and financial data, to be collected and sold to advertisers.
“The law doesn’t change the rules now but instead changes what would have been implemented at the end of the year. Because of this, it’s possible that there won’t be significant changes. However, this could impact how much data gathering and review ISP’s choose to do,” Jacob Rogers, Legal Counsel at Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit organization that brings wiki-based projects to the public for free, said in an email.
Broadband companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have been given the green light to collect and sell information about consumers’ online activity to marketers. This could mean even more specific advertisements catered toward individuals, based on their online behaviors.
“It’s not like the Edward Snowden dump where you go, ‘Well I’m a good person and I’m not committing terrorist acts, therefore they’ll never read my stuff,’” said Jonathon Whooley, international relations lecturer at SF State. “This is literally all of your personal information being taken, not because you’ve committed a crime, but for the sole purpose to better understand you as an online consumer, which you might not enjoy.”
Those in favor of the repeal argue that it creates a freer market for internet providers when it comes to obtaining consumers’ information. By continuing to allow ISPs the same freedoms as individual websites like Facebook or Google, Republicans hope it will create a more competitive market for companies.
“The President pledged to reverse this type of federal overreach in which bureaucrats in Washington take the interests of one group of companies over the interests of others, picking winners and losers,” said Sean Spicer in a press briefing Thursday.
Brian May, vice president of SF State’s Republican Student Union, supports Trump’s idea of a freer marketplace and believes the repeal will boost the country’s economy.
“The privacy of people is going down, but I think people are overdramatizing it,” May said.
“It’s going to open the competition up even more for the marketplace in the U.S. It’s not putting big businesses first, it’s just trying to get the economy strong and get people jobs.”
Congress passed the repeal despite having no Democratic support, and 15 House Republicans who voted against party lines. Though Trump signed the repeal, privacy advocates and even some of his online supporters made a case over the weekend in an attempt to convince him to veto.
“I am against anything and anyone that can track and sell my internet browser history,” wrote one commenter on a pro-Trump Reddit thread. Other Trump supporters on the thread expressed hope Trump would veto the bill. Another writing — “President Trump should veto this to protect us, his voters, from the swamp.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and 45 other Senate Democrats signed a joint letter on Sunday urging Trump to veto the bill. In a tweet, Sen. Schumer called the Republicans’ vote great for big business, but terrible for the American people.
“There’s really no justification for consumers on this one,” Whooley said. “It seems to be just pro-business. They want the data because they believe it can make you easier to understand as a consumer through their marketing tactics, and that’s solely for their benefit.”
Some may not care if their internet provider collects information, as it’s no secret that Amazon already knows their customer’s credit card numbers, similar to how Google tracks patterns of users. But allowing internet providers to collect and sell this information will give them access to everything a person does while connected, and some are concerned this data may get into the wrong hands.
“It won’t be long before the government begins demanding access to the treasure trove of private information Internet providers will collect and store,” Ernesto Falcon wrote in a blog post. Falcon provides legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization that defends civil liberties in the digital world.
EFF created a list of ways America’s cybersecurity will suffer from the repeal of this law, which included the possibility of ISPs becoming a goldmine for hackers, a common concern among those in favor of protections.
“We’ve seen massive hacks of Yahoo, we’ve seen massive hacks all over the internet,” Whooley said. “It’s not so much that you have nothing to hide, it’s that you have some understanding of privacy and the more people who are trafficking your data, the more vulnerable you are to be hacked or for identity theft.”
Although Trump officially rolled the protection rules back Monday, Democrats in congress and privacy advocates didn’t go down without a fight.
In a less conventional statement of resistance, the self-proclaimed privacy activist and net neutrality advocate, Adam McElhaney, created a crowdsourcing campaign to raise funds to buy the search histories of all legislators, congressmen, executives, and their families who pushed the bill. The website is complete with a poll on whose history to purchase first, so far Speaker Paul Ryan is leading with 35 percent.
Privacy advocates are encouraging consumers to explore ways to protect their web history, such as using a virtual private network and a browser called Tor. Some in favor of the repeal are referring to these defense options as a reason why people should feel comfortable supporting the new measure.
“You can block your privacy by going on a private browser, or get certain firewalls to prevent this,” May said. When asked about his own online privacy concerns, he added, “Me personally, I don’t care. I don’t have anything to hide.”
Unfortunately for those who do care about protecting their online data, these options are not always foolproof.
The Tor browser works to encrypt online activity by bouncing each website request through multiple servers to hide the device’s true location, but it is known to be sluggish at times. By paying roughly $5-$10 per month, a VPN will encrypt internet data and disguise a device’s location by redirecting its traffic. This, however, doesn’t guarantee a VPN won’t end up selling its users’ data anyway.
“The technical tools we’ll have to use to counteract creepy ISP spying are unfortunately cumbersome,” said EFF Senior Staff Technologist Jeremy Gillula in an email statement before Trump signed the bill.
For now, the public waits to see how quickly ISPs put a for sale sign on everyone’s online footprint.