Internet privacy is dead in America.
Not that it was ever really alive in the first place. If you use the internet your digital life is an open book, there for anyone to see, corporations to use and governments to peruse.
That is a fact of life in the digital age.
But even the faintest glimmer of hope that, somehow in America, your internet data might be yours only to surrender was dashed March 1 in an action by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The new Trump Administration FCC eliminated March 1 a rule requiring the big telecommunications companies, the ones from whom most of us buy our internet access, to seek your permission before using your data. Internet Service Providers, the companies are termed in industry-spreak, or ISPs.
The internet data you generate – telltale clues about you: what you like, what you do, where you go, with whom you talk – is now officially in the hands of the big telcoms like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and the others. They can do with your data what they like and they no longer need your permission to do it.
The FCC adopted new privacy protections for American internet users in October 2016. The rules required the major telcoms – the ISPs – to seek the permission of customers before using private data. The new FCC nixed those nascent rules on March 1.
Internet and data privacy is important to 74 percent of all Americans, according to Pew Research Center surveys.
“This elimination of basic data security rules gives ISPs a free ride while online services and other edge providers are still required to take reasonable measures to protect their customers’ information under the FTC’s framework,” said Chris Lewis, vice-president of PublicKnowledge.org. “That is not a level playing field. It creates a huge gap in consumer protections where websites have data security requirements, while ISPs with a direct customer relationship do not. ISPs collect all kinds of personal information, including social security numbers, personal addresses, web browsing history, and even location information from your mobile device. The responsibility to keep this information secure is the responsibility of broadband providers — not the subscribers themselves.
“Americans must resist this total assault on their right to choose to keep their personal communication information private,” Lewis continued. “It has been a core value of communications networks since the early days of telephone service and should not be removed in the internet age.”
“Another day, another blow to internet users, struck yet again by the Trump FCC on behalf of the giant media conglomerates that the president’s new chairman is hell-bent on protecting,” said Matt Wood, policy director at FreePress.net. “Today’s decision tells vulnerable populations who are under constant threat of corporate and government surveillance and exploitation that the best they can hope for is leaving the protection of their private information in cable companies’ caring hands.
“Today’s decision delays indefinitely a requirement that broadband internet service providers take reasonable measures to safeguard their customers’ private information. And yet even that mere hint of giving people more power to protect their data is enough to send Chairman Pai scrambling to the ISPs’ aid.”
Let’s be realistic here. Any idea that our online data was somehow private was always a myth. If you’re online – and nearly all of us are now – you are an open book. Private companies such as Google and Facebook have long collected data about us as we moved around the digital spaces. But the collection of private data by companies like Google and Facebook are regulated in America by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), not the FCC as are the big telcoms or ISPs.
And it is precisely that point, argue Republican FCC regulators and the big telcoms. The FCC rules forbade the telcoms from doing what Google and Facebook have long done.
Straw arguments or not, only a handful of nations around the globe take seriously any level of internet privacy. If you want that greater privacy you may need to move to Spain, the Czech Republic, Iceland, Norway or Slovenia.
And, well, the United Nations has formally adopted a policy which suggests data privacy is a basic human right. But none of that actually matters on the ground (or in the digital spaces) in most places around the world.
The Privacy Paradox
Interestingly, WNYC in New York, a National Public Radio affiliate, launched in January what it calls, “The Privacy Paradox,” a series of podcasts entitled, “Note to Self,” and inter-active opportunities for listeners to learn more about internet privacy issues and what individuals might be able to do to protect ourselves.
“Americans love the convenience our digital devices offer, but we are deeply uncomfortable with super-targeted ads and the scooping up of all our data,” said host Manoush Zomorodi. “People feel frustrated and are struggling to take back some control over their online life. This week of challenges will help participants understand the privacy implications of their digital choices, and will give them strategies to feel better about those choices, online and off.”
Even thought the series began over a month ago, participants can sign up at any time and participate in a variety of ways at the Privacy Paradox website.