The Republican Push to Gut Internet Privacy Rules (and What You Can Do About It) Explained

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What’s that story going around this week about the Internet and privacy?

This week, the United States Senate (led by Republicans) voted to rollback Obama-Era privacy regulations that protected consumers from their own internet service providers. The bill rolls back Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules that prohibit ISPs from selling data about your usage (like which websites you visit and for how long, etc.) to advertisers. These rules have not yet gone into effect, but were thought of as a good idea by privacy advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Internet nerds are especially incensed because not only is this a huge blow in the present, it would prevent the FCC from writing any such rule in the future. That’s how rules work, unfortunately.

Who thought this was a good idea?

Republicans! The bill was introduced by Senator Flake, a Republican from Arizona, two weeks ago. Every single Republican Senator who was present voted for internet service providers to have unfettered access to your metadata and all the sweet, sweet money they can make off it. Every single Democrat and Independent voted against it.

Why did it split that way?

Because the Republican Party seems intent on being the party of the mustache-twirling cartoon villain, and because they’ll generally always vote for profit and against regulation, regardless of the cost to citizens. Internet Service Providers try to get away with some creepy shit already; in general we need more rules, not fewer. Besides, the rule doesn’t actually say ISPs CAN’T sell your data. It says they must acquire explicit consent from their customers before they do. It’s almost like the Republican party is a party that doesn’t value consent.

ISP companies still couldn’t get away with doing anything that terrible, could they?

They’re already doing some pretty shitty things, and it goes beyond selling your data to marketers. Some carriers have also hijacked searches and sent their customers directly to websites who pay the ISPs a fee, sold phones with spyware installed so they can get around that pesky encryption and see EVERY site you visit, and injected untrackable cookies into your HTTP traffic that resurrect other cookies and lead to something called “zombie cookies” which basically means you can’t opt out. And because they a) don’t have to tell consumers about any of it and b) are all engaging in similar practices so there isn’t a competitor to jump to, they aren’t bleeding customers as a result.

My point is, we can’t rely on these ISPs to self-regulate or have any sense of ethics. They’ve already proved they don’t.

So what would people want to do with my data anyway? I’m not an important person.

Well, you can build a pretty complete profile of a person using metadata. They would be able to know if you just visited a webpage for an HIV clinic (which might even have a city abbreviation in the URL), a suicide prevention hotline or if you’ve filled out a survey form for LGBTQ folks. Nothing about visiting any of those websites is shameful, obviously, but these topics are often “best friend level” or at least “friend level” for a lot of people. Certainly not “faceless corporation” level. In the case of building an advertising profile that would score your ISP some profit, it’s easy to get a sample of what it would be like by looking at the advertising profile Facebook has built for you. While signed into Facebook, click here, click on “Lifestyle and Culture” and look at the boxes. The first couple might be no-brainers — based on pages you Like, publicly. Like Emily’s List or the Sierra Club. But one of the first things Facebook knows about me is that I’m gay. They also know that I live away from my family, that I’m likely to engage in liberal politics and that my favorite browser is Chrome. That’s creepy enough, but it’s based on ONLY what you engage with on Facebook. Now imagine it for every single website you click on. What profile might Verizon build for you? Who might they sell it to? Now imagine that the people with that profile stand between you and the rest of the internet.

As this administration is gutting net neutrality as well, could they slow down websites linked to unions, protests and political organizations because they don’t like how likely you are to engage in politics that aren’t good for the corporation? Could they sell your data to a group of right-wing extremist “advertisers” with a nice sounding name and a boatload of cash? Would they see anything weird about a right-wing group buying information about a large group of gay people? I dunno, this is all just the worst stuff I can imagine. Can you imagine worse things?

It’s already passed the Senate? Can we do anything about it?

It isn’t hopeless yet! This has to pass the House still, which means we can all call our Representatives (not Senators though, since that vote already happened. You should still call your Senators! But about something else). It’s very easy to call your Representative about this issue — put your zipcode in here to find their number. Even if your Representative is a Democrat, CALL, because sometimes Democrats misplace their spines and we have to help locate and recover them. Here’s a very fast call script if you need a little inspiration:

My name is [YOUR NAME] and I’m a constituent living at [YOUR ADDRESS, GIVE IT EVEN IF THEY DON’T ASK]. I do not need a response. I’m calling to voice my concern about a Joint Resolution that just passed in the Senate. When Senate Joint Resolution 34 comes to the house, the Representative must vote no and allow the FCC to protect consumers from internet service providers. This is an issue of privacy and a move to dismantle consumer protections will cost you my vote. I will tell all my local friends and family about this issue, its importance and about [REPRESENTATIVE’S NAME]’s stance. Cheers!

If you’re feeling like you can converse, you can feel free to ask if your Representative has a stance on this yet and not be as mean/terse as I am if they say they’re supporters of this rule, but YOU DO YOU.

Staff Writer for Autostraddle, Part-time Faculty at The New School (teaching digital storytelling), Managing Editor for Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard Center for Research On Women. Follow me on Twitter @AEOsworth or on Instagram, also @AEOsworth.

A.E. has written 542 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. Thanks for this Ali. Here’s a question you may or may not know the answer to – how does this affect people who live outside of the US but use ISPs owned by American companies or visit American-owned websites?

  2. I am fortunate that I do have a rep to call, but in my work area the our congress person is now AG of the state(has Kamala Harris previous job). Elections aren’t until April, and the seat will more than likely go to a Dem. So, for those of use who’s area doesn’t have a congress person and is in the middle of an election what can we do? Do we call the congress person from one of the neighboring districts(pending it’s in our state, which is a problem for a place like Montana where one person reps the whole state and they right now don’t have a congress person), or the one with high ranks in the republican party in our state?

  3. As with all the interwebs things you explain, thank you for putting this together, Ali. Bonus points for making me laugh in the middle of what is otherwise a serious topic: “the Republican Party seems intent on being the party of the mustache-twirling cartoon villain” had me chuckling into my tea!

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