One nice thing about our GOP controlled Congress is no matter how many meetings Devin Nunes cancels, environmental regulations Trump rolls back or dollars are potentially laundered by Paul Manafort, they can still be relied on to screw up the things we of all parties and positions love. The House and Senate both took their first bold steps to ruining the Internet this week and President Trump is sure to go along for the ride. Given how much the guy’s going to be ramping up our CO2 emissions, you would’ve thought he’d at least give Al Gore a break when it came to his most cherished invention. I’m sorry, I had to.
You probably have seen a headline or two about how Congress just handed a free pass to ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to sell your personal data without your permission. This is accurate but it’s important to remember this has been the lay of the land for way longer than it hasn’t been. From October 2016 to March 2017, the FCC managed to mostly prohibit these sorts of companies from selling your data without your explicit consent. These ISPs—AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Cox, etc.—only had regulations stopping them from selling your info for six months. That’s it. Six measly months. So this legislation isn’t so much a new plunge into a corporatist dystopia as a reminder we’ve lived in one for most of our lives and probably will until the nukes drop or the seas swallow us whole.
On March 2, Trump-approved FCC Chairman Ajit Pai halted certain elements of these rules from taking effect, leaving Congress and Trump to seal the deal later in the month. That’s to say: elements of these FCC regulations hadn’t taken effect yet. In other words, even those six months were symbolic rather than literal to a certain degree. Pai’s reasoning—at least, his public reasoning—behind this decision was that these rules would hit ISPs with different regulations than, say, Facebook, Twitter or Google. They’re regulated by the FTC, so why shouldn’t the FTC regulate the ISPs too? What’s fair is fair.
But is it fair? Consider Facebook. While you can opt out, they do sell the data you give them. That’s why you sometimes hear The Twilight Zone theme in your head when you see a can-they-read-my-mind ad on the site. It’s not exactly rocket science as to how they do this. They log what you like, who you talk to, which videos you watch and, thus, know more about you than you think. Hence, the ads and promoted pages.
But Facebook is a social network. It’s built around the idea of building connections with both people and things, but it’s also performative in a way your ISP doesn’t allow for. They can only target you for what you willingly admit to enjoying on their service. That’s why it’s more likely you’ll see a music video from a band whose page you may not like yet than ads for random washing machines. The self you project on to the network is the self being advertised to. It’s more participatory and less privacy invasion. Still, it’s pretty Black Mirror and we should be okay with admitting that.
What about search engines like Google then? Isn’t that a more apt comparison? Google doesn’t just get to know what you want the world to think about you, it gets to know you in all your messy glory. It knows if you want to know how to detect an unexpected pregnancy, whether you’re scared that bump on your neck might be cancerous, what kind of porn you like to watch, your panicked questions about personal finances. If you have a Gmail account, they scan your emails too. How nice of them! You’ve got to keep the customer satisfied. To be fair, Google does allow a lot of tweaking to their default privacy settings for the more paranoid among us.
But now we’re getting closer to why Pai’s ostensible concerns here may be a bit insidious. ISPs are the granddaddy of data collection. Everything you do on the Internet is collectable by your service provider. It’s Google squared. Every time you visit any website for any reason, your ISP knows. Every time you use the Internet in any way, it knows. It knows when you’re likely to wake up and check the Internet for the first time and when you’ll do it again before hitting the hay. It knows all the GPS routed journeys you’ve taken and, for that matter, where you’re at most every minute of your life.
Luckily, these companies are still legally obliged to give you an opt-out policy. There are options worth weighing about how to proceed. Again, the worst of it is this has been our reality for more time than it wasn’t and a lot of us are just waking up to it.
So ISPs can use or sell where you are, what your social security number is, how your health and finances are, the sites you visit and the apps you use to whomever they choose. Everything is catalogued and we hope your shopping experience will be more pleasant. Fitter, happier, more productive.