Killing that online digital privacy rule will come back to bite the GOP

Chipping away at a considerable chunk of the mountain of federal regulations currently clogging the nation’s arteries is a bold and admirable plan, but this week we may have run into an instance of throwing the baby out with the bath water. As Fox News is reporting, an agreement which would have protected the data and online history of private users from sale and release by internet providers is being canceled by the White House.

The House voted Tuesday to block online privacy regulations issued during the final months of the Obama administration, a first step toward allowing internet providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to sell the browsing habits of their customers.

The Federal Communications Commission rule was designed to give consumers greater control over how internet service providers share information. But critics said the rule would have added costs, stifled innovation and picked winners and losers among Internet companies.

The House voted 215-205 to reject the rule, and sent the legislation to President Donald Trump for his signature.

We’ll get to the stunningly bad optics of this move in a moment, but it’s first worth keeping in mind how transparently thin the arguments against this rule are. The entire idea of “adding costs and stifling innovation” is laughable on the face of it. We’re talking about a rule which doesn’t impact the amount of data which is available and collected or any of the normal processes involved in providing internet service to customers. It simply forces the provider to proactively obtain the permission of the user (“opting in”) before all of their personal data can be scooped off and auctioned off for marketing and advertising purposes. The fact that virtually no sane person who doesn’t wish to be further bombarded with spam advertising or have their private online activity shipped around with even more chance of it being hacked would ever want to opt in for that tells you all you need to know.

And what data are we talking about? An editorial piece from Motherboard provides some of the chilling details.

Financial and medical information. Social Security numbers. Web browsing history. Mobile app usage. Even the content of your emails and online chats.

These are among the types of private consumer information that House Republicans voted on Tuesday to allow your internet service provider (ISP) to sell to the highest bidder without your permission, prompting outrage from privacy watchdogs.

Unlike Google, Facebook and other so-called “edge providers” (who can already see far too much of your data), the ISPs have direct access to everything that passes through their portals when you are connected to the web. And allowing them to gather all that data up, parse it, package it and sell it to marketers and advertisers is an intrusive nuisance at a minimum and a severe security risk in worst case scenarios.

I don’t find myself agreeing with the Democrats in Congress all that often, but Massachusetts Congressman Michael Capuano asked the correct and not terribly subtle question when he said, “What the heck are you thinking?” When our elected officials make a move like this we are entitled to ask precisely whose interests they are serving. In this case, the “service” being rendered goes directly to the benefit of the ISPs (many of whom donate generously to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle). In terms of the actual voters who are forced to use these ISPs for their work and personal online activities, nobody is benefiting from defeating this rule. Even if you’re only concerned with the politics, this is an incredibly stupid maneuver.

If you’re a regular reader of this site you already know that there aren’t many people who rail against destructive, intrusive, politically motivated government regulations more than yours truly. I’ve been greatly heartened by the new president’s attitude in terms of getting rid of many of them, particularly at the EPA. But this rule was a case of the government actually regulating something in a way which could benefit everyone who goes online. This was a terrible decision.