"The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerated the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That in its essence is fascism: ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power." Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Republicans in the House and Senate just repealed landmark FCC regulations on internet privacy. And you don’t need to wear a tinfoil hat to be concerned about it.
After a vote of 215 in favor and 205 against in the House, the new measure S.J. Res 34 is on its way to the desk of an eager President Trump for signature, while Americans from both sides of the political aisle express outrage.
"People should be concerned," said Zachary Heiden the legal director at the ACLU of Maine. "We’re all customers of these companies, but now they’ll be able to treat us like products."
It’s hard to find someone outside the telecom industry that was for this repeal, that now allows internet providers to sell your data without your consent. From Democrats in Congress, and progressives of all persuasions, to alt-writers at Breitbart, Christian conservatives, and the country folk of Aroostook county — most of American rejected it. Even the trolls that lurk in the_donald subreddit expressed anger towards their hero and his decision to roll back Obama’s privacy provisions.
“I am against anything and anyone that can track and sell my internet browser history,” wrote a Reddit user named Hoffa, under a post in the_donald titled “Let’s Discuss this ISP privacy bill.”
If you spend a minute online or asking the people in your community it’s quite clear: nobody asked for this.
Lewis Sigler, from Gardiner, at a recent Portland rally where he said this about the FCC repeal bill: "It’s outrageous, our information belongs to us, it's not up to the companies to sell it to highest bidder. Collins sold us out."
Other fans of privacy in an interconnected world of 3.2 billion internet users have pointed out online that this move undermines basic rights, commodifies our digital identity, and sells it to faceless corporations without permission.
Heiden from the ACLU believes we could and should be doing more to fight for our rights to privacy.
"So many people in this country care about privacy, but they’re not as organized about it like the companies that care about profits," said Heiden.
Have Americans just gotten used to this reality four years after the Snowden revelations? Has that bombshell just been reduced to old news?
WEB AND APP USERS LOST WHAT THEY NEVER HAD
Anytime you log onto the internet, especially from public WiFi like at this Portland Starbucks, third parties can collect your data.
The FCC regulations would have required that internet service providers (ISPs like Comcast and Verizon) ask their customers for permission before they sell their web and app browsing habits to third parties for advertising.
“The vote in Congress to repeal the broadband privacy rules, allowing internet service providers to spy on their customers and sell their data without consent, is a terrible setback for the American public,” said Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy at Consumer Federation of America.
Without these rules, ISPs are allowed to install stealth software on your phone to track your activity in real-time, placing advertisements in your web browsers and on websites where you normally wouldn’t see them.
“I understand that network executives want to produce the highest return for shareholders by selling consumers’ information,” wrote the chairman of the FCC under Obama, Tom Wheeler, in an op-ed to the New York Times called ‘How the Republicans sold your privacy to Internet providers.’ “The problem is they are selling something that doesn’t belong to them. What is good business for powerful cable and phone companies is just tough luck for the rest of us.”
If this seems like nothing new, you wouldn’t be wrong. Some have argued that Americans have grown complacent in an age where tech-related issues are the norm: government surveillance, identity thefts, and advertisers pining after your identity. Google and Facebook have been tracking and collecting our browsing habits and selling them to the highest bidder for years; that’s why the ads you see on those sites seem so catered to your interests. According to an ad spending forecast from eMarketer, Google and Facebook’s advertising market is worth more than $80 billion.
However, privacy advocates say that although the services of Facebook and Google are so ubiquitous to Internet activities, a user can still choose not to use them, whereas people don’t have much choice over an ISP, especially if they live in a rural area.
On top of that, Facebook and Google are free services which depend on ad revenue to stay in operation; ISPs are paid for by customers that don’t expect their data to be used as a commodity.
THE ARGUMENT FOR IT
Representatives like Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) have justified the repeal by saying that the FCC regulations undermine customer choice and infringe upon the free market.
“These broadband privacy rules are unnecessary and are just another example of big government overreach,” said Rep. Blackburn, who sponsored the repeal bill, in a recent press conference.
During Sean Spicer’s daily circus, he told reporters that Trump had “pledged to reverse this overreach,” and that the FCC regulations were an example of “bureaucrats in Washington” placing restrictions on one kind of company — internet service providers — and “picking winners and losers.”
Our very own Senator Susan Collins also believes that the FCC regulations are an example of government overreach. She voted yes on the repeal (alongside Congressman Bruce Poliquin) and according to a statement her press secretary wrote to the Press Herald, she believes that it was a “misguided rule” that had created “an inconsistent, confusing standard,” and “limited broadband innovation.”
Collins also argued that Google and Facebook aren’t beholden to the same strict standards, and this creates competitive disadvantages to internet service providers.
FACEBOOK IS NOT THE INTERNET
Do Republicans and so-called moderates like Collins have ISPs confused with websites? The FCC only applies to telecommunication companies, so they wouldn't be allowed to develop rules for internet businesses even if they wanted to.
This confusion has had many opponents of the repeal in Maine and across the country scratching their heads and facetiously asking, “When did Facebook and Google become ISPs?”
“An ISP (a service that I pay for) is not the same as a Google or Facebook (both free and voluntary services),” wrote Fred Michel from Westbrook in a written letter to Susan Collins. “You and your colleagues have conflated this issue, and are voting against the interest of your constituents. Be honest, have you ever heard a voter ask you to allow their ISP to sell their personal data to the highest bidder? This was an extremely disappointing vote.”
“One thing Senator Collins will learn is, you don't mess with people and their internet,” wrote BGoodie on the Maine subreddit. “This woman needs to be tossed out. I'd honestly rather have a gaggle of LePage's [sic] over every spineless person who is ‘representing’ us.”
FOR SALE: YOUR INFORMATION
Research has told us that over 81 percent of adults use the Internet — some for up to 10 hours a day — but how many of us care to cover our tracks?
So who are our representatives actually representing with this repeal?
Well, if you follow the money, it would seem that lawmakers value the wishes of big corporations (in this case ISPs) instead of their constituents. In today’s world, corporations are granted personhood in legal cases.
And when you're in bed with big corporations, you can bet deals are made under the sheets.
The Verge recently released a list of the 256 members of Congress who voted yes on the repeal alongside the number of financial donations they received from telecom industries during their last election cycle. According to the chart, Senator Collins was bought out for $57,550, and Poliquin $47,500.
“They betrayed you for chump change,” T.C. Sottek wrote for the Verge.
It’s also important to note that the telecommunications industry is one of the largest lobbying groups in US history; they’ve been notorious for spreading their wealth and buying votes left and right.
"All the people that voted for it got paid by the industry," said Carl Blue, an associate professor of technology at USM. "It’s bewildering."
WHY INTERNET PRIVACY MATTERS
This brings us to why this is all a really big deal. Why be worried about something that you can opt out of (although it’s rather difficult to do so). Some of you reading this might not care about this issue, thinking “What’s the big deal about more targeted ads?”
Heiden stressed that data protection and net neutrality are indeed big deals, even if you don’t somehow don’t have anything remotely compromising on your browsing history.
"People sometimes suggest that if you have nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about," said Heiden from the ACLU of Maine. "Very few of those people post the contents of all their emails in publicly accessible spots, very few of them leave their doors unlocked, and very few of them want their history publicized beyond their control. Privacy is a meaningful human right. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you care about it."
On top of this ethical dilemma, other privacy advocates like Edward Sihler, the technical director at the cyber security lab at USM, pointed to more objective problems: cyber crime. According to him, once data is collected and exchanged between multiple parties, it can be vulnerable to hackers and identity thieves.
"I wouldn’t want to trust one ISP over another because most of them have leaked data at various times," said Sihler. "Personally, I do everything I can to protect my data from being viewed. I’m very cautious about it."
Trump’s FCC, under newly appointed commissioner Ajit Pai (who’s also a net neutrality opponent), recently voted to roll back requirements that ISPs must take “reasonable measures” to protect their customers' sensitive and confidential information. ISPs already don’t have a great track record of protecting their customers information — in 2015 AT&T was fined $25 million after their own employees stole and sold private information from their 280,000 customers.
AT&T employees were also caught recently selling their customer’s information to the government and law enforcement agencies.
Repealing this bill doesn’t just line the pockets of Republican lawmakers and executives from big telecommunication industries, it encourages a culture of mass surveillance. Today it’s mining customer data for targeted advertising, and tomorrow it could be cracking down on anybody that’s downloaded media on a sharing service, or shared a picture of illicit drugs on Snapchat.
And because the Internet is so ubiquitous to modern life, many see its use as a basic human right. Let’s compare the Internet to a public city square, where you’re able to have a private or public conversation, but you’re always in control over who hears it. In that same vein, Internet users should be able to send an email or visit a website without worrying that someone you didn’t approve of can snoop in and take advantage of that data.
But overall, many see the repeal of the internet’s privacy rules as indicative of something far more disturbing: our society functions on a pay-to-play system.
From health care official’s relationship to insurers, to the fossil-fuel industry's relationship to Trump’s EPA, and now with ISP’s lobbying for freedom to extend their profits at the customer’s expense, Americans have witnessed an ongoing and troubling reality: the Trump administration isn’t fighting over ideological differences, they’re fighting to protect corporate interests.
Are we really living in a democracy? Or are we living in an oligarchy, a government of, by, and for the rich?
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF
It’s not like we’re going to give up on using the Internet, are we? Whether you’re a bitcoin miner, a media pirate, or just an average web surfer that wants to be in control over who sees and uses your data, here are the top five ways you can kinda-sorta ensure your anonymity on the web.
And don’t worry, you don’t need to be an encryption wizard to take these simple steps. Anything and everything goes on the Internet, and who knows who’s watching; arm yourself with protection!
Call your ISP and opt out
Most major ISPs care about their image, and despite their freedom to compile and sell your data, many have reaffirmed their position on customer privacy. Take it with a grain of salt, but that's what they're saying. Many major telecom companies including, Verizon and AT&T, signed a pledge in January ensuring that customers can opt out of having their data sold to third party marketers.
Hold them accountable to this promise. Call your ISP and opt out.
Use a VPN
Check the symbol in the top left of your browser bar. Do you see a padlock marked secure? If so, the data you exchange with the site is private.
Sites that are marked with the “https” prefix only share the name of the domain you visit to your ISP. All traffic within that site is encrypted and doesn’t get sent anywhere else.
However, across-the-board privacy costs money. So you’re super paranoid, or your favorite sites don’t offer encrypted connections, consider downloading a VPN, or Virtual Private Network.
The most popular and reliable VPNs are TorGuard and Private Internet Access. These tools scramble all your data and hide your IP address, keeping snooping ISPs and governments out of your digital life. Other good options include Freedome and TunnelBear.
Many journalists, whistleblowers, and political advocates connect to the web through these VPNs, guaranteeing them freedom from censorship.
The only downside to using a VPN? You can’t watch Netflix through it.
And while we don’t necessarily advocate for illegally downloading music and moves here at The Phoenix, if you’re going to pirate media and you enjoy not being in jail, get a VPN ASAP.
Download the TOR browser
This is the simplest way to protect your data online; everyone should be surfing the web through the Tor browser, AKA the Onion Router.
It isn’t bulletproof, but it’s free and ensures that your identity, sensitive information, and browsing habits are obscured. The Tor browser does this by bouncing the data coming from your IP address through a vast network of other servers, making it impossible for others to trace its origin.
There is, however, a dark side to the Internet that’s only accessible through the Tor browser, which we don’t recommend you seek out.
Block third party cookies
Make it a weekly habit to delete your cookies: small bits of data that are accessible to third parties. Harvesting cookies is the most common way for advertisers to build up profiles on their target customers without consent.
It’s not a fix-all solution — ISPs and websites can access your data through other means — but if you delete your cookies, and block third-party cookies in your browsing settings than you’ll likely see fewer advertisements tailored toward your hidden impulses.
Turn the tides
This tip won’t protect your data, but it will grant some catharsis if you’re pissed at the repeal of the FCC Internet privacy regulations.
In what’s probably the most refractory response to the repeal, a couple websites are asking for contributions to help buy the Internet data of the members of Congress who voted for the repeal. The GoFundMe page “BuyCongressData,” and the website “https://searchinternethistory.com/">SearchTheInternetHistory.com” are raising money to buy the browsing history from the politicians that sold our privacy.
If it’s successful, it would be a clever way for them to get a taste of their own medicine.