If you’ve been reading social media much in the last few weeks, you’ve no doubt run across alarmed/outraged folks posting about a law that has been hurtling through Congress that would roll back President Obama’s online privacy regulations. After passing in the Senate, this week the law narrowly passed in the House of Representatives along party lines (although, 15 or so Republicans voted with Democrats), sending the bill to President Trump, who is expected to sign the legislation.
So what does it mean? Well, what it would do is essentially allow Internet Service Providers, like Comcast or Time Warner, to buy, sell, and monetize our user data. It means that Comcast, for example, could use our browsing history, our app use, and our location to create highly targeted ads. Our ISPs could even sell that information to a third-party marketing outfit that could send you unsolicited emails, mass mailers, or even telemarketing calls offering to sell you products based on your browsing history. They could do all of this without the permission of the user.
Worse still, if the law were signed, it would prohibit the FCC from issuing similar privacy rules in the future after, say, the majority of Americans decide that we don’t want to get catalogues from a sex robot company because some marketing firm knows we visit a lot of porn sites.
It’s pretty sketchy, and it feels like an egregious invasion of our privacy. And it is, but it’s honestly not that dissimilar to existing invasions of our privacy. Google and Facebook, for instance, already collect all of this information on us. I am pretty sure that they even use our phones to listen in on our conversations and direct ads at us. A few weeks ago, for instance, I was talking to my wife about our gas bill (it’s been pretty modest this winter, because we use wood stoves to keep our house heated). Five minutes later, I jump on the computer, and suddenly, I’m being served ads I have never seen before from our local gas company. On political and pop culture sites. I’ve been noticing this more and more, in fact: Ads based on conversations I have, or emails I send. It freaks me out.
This bill would essentially allow AT&T or Verizon or Comcast to use the same information Google or Facebook already collects, which means AT&T or Verizon could create their own ad networks, or sell that information to other people.
I hate it, it sucks, and we should all hate it. But also, it mostly just expands the marketing abilities that certain companies already have to other companies, giving those companies the same ability to advertise to us, only ISPs obviously have access to information beyond simply our browsing habits. In other words, every time you do something on your phone or laptop or iPad, you’ve giving others better intel upon which they can market to us.
Even more troubling is the path this puts us on toward the end of net neutrality. That’s the battle that is expected to be waged in the coming months and years.
On the bright side, maybe it will mean seeing less anti-Hillary ads because, what the f*ck?