Trump’s new Chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, recently co-authored what is either an intentionally or naively deceptive op-ed in The Washington Post.
Pai suggested that when Republicans in the House and Senate – without a single Democratic vote in either body – voted to legalize your Internet Service Provider – your ISP – to sell your personal (and you-thought-private) browsing information and the content of your emails and video-viewing to anybody they choose, they were actually working to “protect” your privacy. He knew this, he wrote, because critics of the GOP policy “don’t understand how advertising works.”
That claim is unadulterated BS.
He starts out saying that an ISP would never sell your private browsing\emailing\viewing history because it “would violate ISP’s privacy promises.” True enough, at this moment – because those privacy policies reflect the law that banned such behavior.
But anybody who’s ever bothered to read online Terms Of Service knows that such policies can, quite literally, be changed in less than a day, to accommodate new legal opportunities. To think they won’t is either naïve or profoundly disingenuous.
At the core of this debate is a simple concept that Pai’s op-ed goes out of its way to obfuscate. It’s the question of whether the internet and access to it should be a “public” space (i.e. “part of the commons”) with a We The People government-regulated expectation of privacy, or a hypermonetized private/corporate/billionaire-regulated space where you are left to the tender mercies of giant corporations and their owners/managers.
Think of it like your phone company.
There was a time, in the early days of telephones, when there was very little privacy to a phone call. “Agnes” at the phone company (operators in the 1920s and ‘30s were nearly always women) could, as she plugged your line to your neighbor’s line to establish a connection, listen in to your conversation (a common theme in old movies). Party lines were notoriously insecure.
So, in 1934, Congress updated the laws regulating radio to include telephony, creating the FCC, and wrote Title II of the FCC regulations, which basically says that the phone system is a public utility (necessary for public safety, the public good, etc.), and that therefore the phone company couldn’t listen in to your conversations.
Imagine, instead, that the newly-formed 1934 FCC had taken the position that Pai and his Republican allies argue for – that phone systems were purely profit machines for the companies that own them, and they could monetize them anyway they wanted based on the content of your phone calls.
Agnes could listen in and tell her boss, “He’s discussing a big business deal,” or, “He’s having an affair!” The phone company could then sell that information to a competing company or your spouse, or buy or sell stocks based on it (a theme in several 1920s stories), thus increasing their profits. Maybe Agnes could even get herself cut into the deal.
Additionally, Agnes could (again, check out the old movies) even “censor” you, telling you you shouldn’t be having that affair, or cutting your connection just when you’re in the heat of passion or about to consummate a business deal with which she disagreed.
Can you remember any in-depth reporting on net neutrality or privacy? They’re treated as if they’re irrelevant, even though they’re at the core of most of our daily lives.
The modern version of this isn’t hard to imagine. Giant ISP companies Comcast and Time-Warner already own MSNBC and CNN respectively, and given the near-complete absence of on-air discussion of net neutrality or the GOP’s recent anti-privacy legislation, it’s not unreasonable to assume that, at the very least, talent and producers on those networks know better than to embarrass their employers with these issues.
But now that those ISPs can read – and regulate – your browsing (remember, less government regulation means more power for billionaires and their corporations to regulate you), what happens when your favorite website runs an article critical of one of these giant ISPs?
You could find that Alternet takes minutes to load a page, whereas more corporate-friendly sites like Breitbart or others funded in part by billionaires are blazing fast. At first it would probably be a simple pay-to-play, but since censorship is already rampant on our corporate “news” channels, it’s not a stretch to expect it to come soon to your web browser.
Back in 1934, to prevent the telephone version of this sort of corporate intrusion into our lives, the FCC, through Title II, said that the contents of your phone conversations were yours – private – and other than the distance you were calling or the length of time you were on the phone, they couldn’t charge less for a call to Mom or more for a call to your stockbroker. (Business lines could charge more, mostly for a business listing, but privacy was still intact.)
Phone service is still that way today, and when former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler put the internet under Title II, he extended those privacy protections to what are, in effect, your online activities and conversations.
Pai and his Republican buddies in Congress, assert (now successfully) that your use of the internet is not a protected communication, that the internet is not a “public good” or a “public utility,” and that everything you say or do online can and should be turned into extra revenue sources for the big ISPs that then pass big bucks along to the GOP through lobbying and campaign contributions.
This is why he argues that instead of the Federal Communications Commission overseeing the internet, regulatory power should be shifted to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). It’s not about “communications” in his mind; it’s about “trade/commerce.”
While a number of totalitarian and “raw capitalist” nations agree with Pai, every other fully functioning democracy in the world considers the internet to be a public utility like telephony.
Pai and his GOP buddies have instead moved us in the corporate-authoritarian direction of China – where the state can not only listen in on everything you do on the internet, but can censor it, while private companies can monetize it.
This is a huge contrast to Canada or the European Union, which have both declared internet neutrality a basic human right and use of the internet to be part of a telephone-like common carrier process with appropriate privacy protections enforced by governments answerable to average citizens.
As to Pai’s suggestion that, “Internet service providers have never planned to sell your individual browsing history to third parties. That’s simply not how online advertising works,” I commend to you what is probably your own experience. Private, for profit companies already can – and aggressively do – sell your personal usage information. It’s a robust business, in fact.
And it can be a bit disconcerting.
Five years ago when my wife had breast cancer (now gone, thankfully) and began googling the topic and buying chemo supplements, pretty much any computer she used, as soon as she signed into anything that would identify her, began popping up ads for chemotherapy wigs and other cancer accessories. (One wonders what kinds of ads follow around heavy porn users.) An overweight friend similarly has weight-loss ads following her all over the internet, from town to town, from computer to computer.
Giant search engines and a plethora of private sites enthusiastically sell your usage of their sites; it’s at the core of their business models. And, arguably, that’s not a violation of the spirit of Title II, because it wasn’t “Agnes” selling the contents of your “conversation” – instead it was the person/company to whom Agnes connected you.
Pai’s argument is basically that if Google can sell or use your information, then Comcast, AT&T, Time-Warner, etc., should be able to, too.
But there’s a fundamental difference. If you don’t want Google to sell or use your information, you can use a search engine (like www.duckduckgo.com) or an online store that promises not to.
But your internet service provider sees everything you do on the internet, right down to the keystroke level. They can monitor every VOIP conversation, make note of every search or purchase, and transcribe every email or IM. Just like your phone company, before Title II, could listen in on every one of your phone calls.
And, who knows? Maybe that’s next on Pai’s agenda.