In a time full of hacking allegations, cyber investigations, and a media circus revolving around digital efforts to manipulate a presidential election, the U.S. Senate just voted to remove consumer internet privacy protections before they ever began. Intelligence leaks have repeatedly shown that the digital reach of the U.S. government has extended beyond the understanding many lawmakers have of the cyber frontier, allowing those in the know to operate with near impunity within the broadly worded confines of the law, and sometimes, even beyond it. The debate about online privacy is often centered around this concern, with one side of the argument arguing that they would prefer the government not eavesdrop on their personal correspondence with family and friends, and the other side arguing that the benefit these methodologies offer is greater than any potential harm an NSA clerk seeing the kitten pictures you text to your girlfriend could produce.
The debate between security and maintaining personal freedoms is sure to extend well beyond contemporary politics or current surveillance policy, as it is inherent to the very balance we’ve branded as the American form of democracy. Valuing our independence and our safety has always come with a healthy level of passionate discourse – as it well should – but the discussion about privacy in the digital realm sometimes neglects the private sector, where many of us voluntarily deposit enormous amounts of personal information in the course of our daily web activities.
Unfortunately, the issue has slowly degraded from “important topic of conversation” to “political issue,” which means discourse can no longer occur, and politicians will revert to their default setting of simply voting along party lines, regardless of their understanding of a topic. In order to fully appreciate why our political machine has become less about discussion and debate and more about just picking teams, we’d need to have a long and serious conversation about how gerrymandering has made it almost more important to appeal to the powers that be in your party than it is to appeal to the voters in your district… but that’s a subject for another day, and a few more pots of coffee.
Suffice to say, the parties hold a great deal of power, and the politicians, intent on keeping their jobs, know that many of them are in no danger of losing their spot to an opposing political party (Republicans aren’t likely to start winning over the Berkeley, California area, for instance). This means playing ball to keep your seat, rather than concerning yourself over what the voters in your state are really looking for. Of course, like all things, that’s an over-simplification of an extremely complex issue, so let’s just agree that there are lots of things that influence a politician’s vote other than their constituents – party pressures, lobbyists, financial backers, and the like.
This brings us to the Senate’s Thursday vote to repeal a set of rules voted on in 2016 intended to prevent Internet Service Providers (the internet companies we use to log onto SOFREP) from tracking your web usage and selling that information to third parties without your permission. In short (which is always a dangerous way to preface a sentence summarizing regulation) the laws would mandate that internet companies tell you what they collect from your personal computer or cell phone and who they are selling it to. According to a 50 to 48 vote on Thursday, those rules will never come to fruition.
Now, this is where things get difficult. I’m the sort of guy who lives by the creedo, “If someone says, ‘there oughta be a law’ about something, it means there probably shouldn’t be.” I don’t like over-regulation, I don’t like lots of government, and I’ll never accept the idea that legal and moral are synonymous. My idea of a perfect life is one where the government’s presence so small I barely notice it, but is there when it makes practical sense to ensure the safety and wellbeing of its citizens. Yup, that’s a Utopian view, but I’d settle for a whole lot less perfect as we keep fine tuning this crazy experiment we call a nation…I’m just not sure that’s the end goal we’re collectively working toward right now.
It’s important to note that the 50 to 48 vote doesn’t represent a close call – Senate Republicans voted along party lines, and having the majority, that guaranteed the legislation passing. Debate and discussion were moot from the beginning, because the Senate rarely concerns itself with trying to change one another’s minds, they mainly tap dance for the sake of cameras (just ask every Democrat that’s used Trump’s cabinet’s confirmation hearings to grand stand about how much they don’t like the president). I’m not accusing the Republicans or the Democrats of being bad guys, honestly I’m not, but I am accusing them of valuing macropolitics, or the big picture of total political party domination, over the real-life effects some of their legislation will actually produce.
This hurts me to say, in part because I know many of the folks that read this article are team players, and they’ll skip over the parts where I rag on Democrats and fume in the comments below about me criticizing a conservative decision, and vice versa from the more liberal leaning side of the fence. This is only a party-lines issue because the parties made it that way, not because doing away with privacy regulations aligns deeply with the conservative belief structure. Many conservatives, myself included, value our privacy – and want the politicians we voted for to represent that.
Personally, I don’t want a commercial enterprise to have the right to see and log everything I do online, and then be allowed to sell “The Unauthorized Biography of Alex Hollings’ web history” to anyone they choose, all without ever running any of it past me. It’s not that I’m lurking around anarchist forums or selling drugs in the deep web – it’s just a matter of principle. If I spotted you lurking around my house at night, peering through the windows while my wife was in the shower, I’d probably deposit fifteen dollars worth of ammunition in your chest… and that mindset doesn’t shift much when you’re peering through my internet windows either.
Now, I realize those who disagree with me (and you have every right to) will say I willingly give that information up to companies like Facebook and Google – and you’re right. That’s an issue I also consider from time to time, when I google a stroller for my brother (I have no children) and then get bombarded by diaper advertisements for the next six years in the feeds of every social media platform I frequent. The internet is currently the wild west, but because there doesn’t seem to be very many Wyatt Earp types managing it from within, politicians are awarding more and more power to the gold mines, rather than the miners.
Big corporations are not always the bad guy, but we can’t rely on them to value our personal freedoms over their profit margin – especially because it’s arguably illegal for a corporation’s leadership to choose the less profitable of two avenues under certain circumstances. In some instances, it does benefit us to have a government that says, “hey, stay out of that lady’s underwear drawer,” just to keep things civil – and if you think comparing someone’s internet history to their underwear drawer is an unfair equivocation, you must have missed how much of the web seems to be devoted to that sort of thing.
So no, I’m not saying House Republicans want to take away your internet privacy, nor am I suggesting that House Democrats care about your privacy either. Instead, I’m suggesting that we begin to hold our politicians accountable for understanding the legislation they vote for – and the ramifications they’ll have on our lives.
If you think I’m exaggerating, I’d ask that you go back and watch the House debates on SOPA and award yourself a shiny dime every time a politician from either party stands up and prefaces their statements with something along the lines of, “I’m not a nerd, so I don’t understand this internet stuff.” I bet you that you’ll have enough dimes to buy yourself one of those expensive cups of flavored coffee I can’t stand from the very fanciest of internet cafés in your town by the time you’re done watching.
In all honestly, I’m more apt to defend state spying on our internet activities than I am willing to accept commercial sale of my personal information to unknown third parties. I can make a decent argument about our government trying to protect us – but no potential benefit could come of the sale of my internet use history, or yours. It won’t stop a terrorist attack, it won’t help solve a crime, it will only make a new marketplace full of what we do in the privacy of our own phones and computers – a marketplace we can’t be sure will be used only for a new generation of targeted advertising.
If you think your dirty laundry isn’t worth any money, just ask all the folks that were exposed in the Ashley Madison hacking debacle a few years ago. Being able to purchase the right to know whether or not someone is having an affair, or what kind of pornography they’re into, or where they take their daughter to school doesn’t make for a better society – it makes for a scarier one. Sure, hackers can find all that stuff out already… but we shouldn’t be passing laws that make it a commercial enterprise.
So as this vote goes from the Senate to the House, I’d ask that you think objectively about the ramifications of it passing – and without rooting the home team, whichever team that may be for you. Go look for articles that are written by smarter folks than me, ones that present a view that counters my own, and if you feel like it matters, contact your state representatives and let them know how you feel either way.
After all, I’m no nerd, so what do I know.
Image courtesy of TweakTown