Down The Rabbit Hole: An American Society Without Privacy?

Image Source: https://www.slashgear.com/what-the-new-fcc-internet-privacy-rules-mean-for-you-10431005/

Have you ever noticed that ads for items you might have previously viewed online mysteriously appear as you search various Internet sites? Unfortunately, this is not a coincidence. Internet service providers (ISPs), such as Comcast and Verizon, monitor your Internet use and sell that information to companies. The firms buying consumers’ browsing history use this information to make strategic marketing decisions and figure out the best way to get their products into your hands.

During President Obama’s last few months in office, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created a set of rules that were later approved requiring Internet Service Providers to offer an “opt-in” option to consumers before firms could collect and sell their browsing, app-usage, and location data to companies. On Tuesday, Congress passed a resolution undoing the FCC’s privacy rules before they could take effect. Although essentially nothing had changed, this resolution, which Trump is expected to sign into law, eradicates any chance that people could take back their right to online privacy by allowing companies unmitigated access to various forms of consumer data.

I would argue that this move by Congressional Republicans (no Democrats voted for this resolution) is both antithetical to the message that arguably contributed to Trump’s ascension to the presidency, and it is an infringement on individual liberty promised to Americans in the Declaration of Independence.

This election cycle, President Trump ran a campaign that focused on the “forgotten man and woman” and emphasized the need to “drain the swamp” for the benefit of all Americans. However, the populist sentiment evident throughout President Trump’s campaign seems to be lost in Congress’s newest resolution: a rollback of privacy regulations that benefit large corporate interests, not the roaring middle-class that carried the Republican Party to executive and legislative triumphs.

I do not mean to imply that President Trump ran a campaign on the idea that corporations are inherently detrimental to society, but he seemed to advocate more for the American worker than corporate interests. For instance, he would repeatedly emphasize the importance of bringing jobs back to America despite the financial burden that might place on large corporations. In my opinion, this resolution does not strike the same tone: the resolution essentially allows companies to exploit the potential desires of the Americans through an invasion into their online privacy.

One could argue that this resolution is in line with Trump’s promises to roll back regulations in general. It is true that this certainly constitutes a lift of regulation, but during the campaign, Trump specifically referenced removing regulations that made life burdensome for Americans. For example, Trump promised to rescind President Obama’s moratorium on mining to put the coalminers back to work.

Although Congress’s resolution does remove regulations from industry, this regulation in particular goes towards protecting all American’s freedom and the implied right to privacy in the Constitution. As such, Congress’s resolution has received backlash from the New York Times Editorial Board, which is typically considered to be liberal, and from Breitbart, a conservative blog.

And remember President Trump’s promise to drain the swamp? Well, this resolution reeks of the swamp. Over the past 7 years, telecommunications companies have given $1.7 million to 22 Republican Senators instrumental in passing this resolution.

Source: http://www.vocativ.com/411479/senators-online-privacy-money/

This is just another example of how money and lobbyists continue to dominate Washington D.C.’s agenda, something that Trump vowed to change during his campaign. As a result, President Trump signing this resolution into law would be a repudiation of some of his major campaign promises.

On a larger scale, this legislation has implications for American society and citizens’ rights to online privacy. The resolution will not only allow ISPs to sell people’s browsing history, location, and app-use data to companies; it also prohibits the FCC from adopting any “substantially similar” rules to those set forth during the Obama administration. These include instituting the “opt-in” option mentioned before and requiring ISPs to notify people about the types of information being collected and sold.

As a result, consumers practically have no protection: the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cannot oversee the actions of ISPs, so there are no rules regarding what information can be sold and to whom they can sell it. Perhaps this is just my fiscally conservative, socially libertarian point of view, but this is not something that should be taken lightly. It is antithetical to Americans pursuing the liberties promised in the Declaration of Independence.

Some may argue that it is not as if employees from these companies are physically stalking you; however, a study in 2015 revealed that 42% of Americans go online several times per day and 21% go online almost constantly. Only 13% of Americans go online less than daily. The Internet is undoubtedly growing in popularity and is omnipresent in the lives of most Americans: people rely on the Internet to engage with others, shop, do research for occupational and educational purposes, keep up with current events, be entertained, and, in general, to serve as an informational resource for anything people desire to know.

As a result, although these companies are not physically following you, they do have access to your personal information such as your desires, preferences, and location. No regulation of these ISPs allows people’s lives to be subject to all types of scrutiny, and law biding citizens no longer have the freedom to engage in completely unencumbered activities. So, although this might not physically feel like a deprivation of liberty, I would argue that it certainly is.

Once the cat is let out of the bag, it is hard to get it back in. My fear is that invasion into people’s privacy will only expand in this ever-digitizing world, and once this right disappears it would be extremely difficult to reinstate it. Congress’s resolution might, I believe, in the long run contribute to the intermingling between the public and private spheres of life. If we continue down this path, the private will become the public, and not to be completely pessimistic, we saw how that worked out with Nazi Germany.

Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, but as a Republican who believes in the virtues of small government and individual freedoms, I am extremely nervous about the direction in which American society is headed. Unregulated surveillance in the short-term goes against what Trump supporters voted for, and in the long-term it goes against the founding principles of American society.

Ben Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” I hope this Congressional resolution is not an initial step in American society losing both.

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