Why do Republicans want your ISP collecting and profiting off of your private Internet data?

Suppose a neighbor’s house is slightly elevated in such a way that they can see through your living room window. They can see most of what you do in there, including what you’re reading and what’s on your TV. It’s not everything, but it’s a significant amount of information. They know your favorite TV shows, TV networks, books, sports teams, and maybe even your political leanings. So they take this information and sell it to some of the companies in the area and you start receiving deals in the mail for these things you’re interested in. Maybe it’s a mailing from the local Republican party. Or a coupon from a home improvement store (since they noticed you watching all that HGTV).

At first you might think this is good, but you’d quickly ask yourself how they got this information. If you found out and were upset about it, you could just do everything you usually do in the living room, in a different room. It’s not as convenient (in fact it’s inconvenient) but it solves the problem of someone gathering data and profiting off of it without your consent.

Now suppose that another neighbor figures this out as well. They see your first neighbor with a new car and a new swimming pool since they’ve embarked on this information collection through your living room window. The second neighbor realizes that there are several locations in the neighborhood with visibility into your house, and by spying from each spot they can figure out what happens in every room in your house. They can hear lot’s of your conversations, infer what kinds of medical conditions you or your family might be suffering from, and know what time you wake up and go to bed.

This makes the room switching solution not only inconvenient, but useless. They can see everything, can sell that information to whomever they’d like, and they never have to tell you about it. While you might experience some benefit from this (coupons, targeted advertisements, etc.), most reasonable people would prefer, at minimum, to know that this was happening.

Congress, and soon President Trump, just gave your second neighbor the green light to do everything mentioned above. Your Internet service provider (ISP) is the second neighbor and their argument is that the first neighbor can do it, so why shouldn’t the second neighbor be able to do it as well?

The answer is that neither neighbor should be able to do what they’re doing without my consent! That’s what privacy is. And by green lighting all of this it ensures ISPs will work tirelessly to better understand the data they collect and to profit from it. And to be clear, I have no problem with a company making money, but not at the expense of my privacy.

Let me quickly dispel the straw man arguments in favor of allowing ISPs to do this.

First, telecom companies argue that “fringe companies” like Google and Facebook already collect and profit off the data they collect, so why shouldn’t they be able to as well? The answer is that I don’t have to use Google or Facebook. I can use other search engines, email clients, and social networks. I don’t have that flexibility with ISPs. For many in this country there is one show in town when it comes to high speed broadband Internet.

Second, they will argue that the Federal Trade Commission already regulates privacy and that they will, and do, comply with their set of rules. It’s important to understand that the FTC regulations in this arena are reactive. They kick in after harm has already been done as they enforce laws if a company does something that’s unfair or deceptive. The Federal Communication Commission’s rules were proactive. They required you to “opt-in” to participate in ISP’s data collection and profiteering.

Third, I’ve heard people argue that individuals should be responsible for their own privacy. I agree with this, to an extent. But what this law has done is place a great burden on citizens to protect themselves. To protect their privacy effectively they need to, at minimum, set up a virtual private network which costs between $60-$150 a year. This argument is like saying we should be responsible for our own potable drinking water if a company pollutes it. It puts an unnecessary burden on citizens to all go buy water filters. There is no difference here, as the right to privacy is a fundamental right in this country.

Last, I’d like to point out that my neighbor analogy is not an exaggeration. Your ISP can see almost everything you do on the Internet. They have access to your search history, browsing history, geolocation information, what content you access with which device, and literally everything you do on unencrypted websites. And on encrypted websites they can see the domain name of the site. So they can’t tell what you’re doing on an encrypted site, but they can tell that you went there. All this data is a gold mine for advertisers, and now for ISPs.

And almost every Republican legislator thought this was a good idea, so they voted in favor of this behavior by Internet Service Providers. If you’re wondering why they would think this okay, I’d encourage you to call your reps office, send them letters and emails, and go to their town halls. In the meantime, think about everything you do on the Internet and remember that your ISP is probably tracking it all and will soon be profiting off of it.

Oh and start researching virtually private networks. It seems we’re all going to need one.

image credit: https://flic.kr/p/SbmFSw