You might not have noticed, but politics and government have been dominating the news for a little while. Even here at SnapMunk, we can’t avoid dipping our toes in the muddy waters of that yet-to-be-drained swamp—there’s important legislative stuff going on in the tech world, like “right to repair” bills that make sure you have control of the hardware you purchase.
And like the recent votes by the US Senate and House of Representatives to make sure you don’t have control of your Internet browsing data.
SHOCKING REPORT: There’s No Such Thing as Privacy On the Net
In a vote that broke strictly along party lines in the Senate and saw only a handful of Republicans in the House break ranks to vote “No,” regulations previously signed into law by Obama were rendered obsolete. These regulations would have prevented ISPs from selling your browsing data to third parties, and thanks to the current political climate the move managed to bring public attention to the issue of Internet privacy in a way the EFF hasn’t managed to do despite decades of trying.
If you’re wondering, “what’s the EFF?”, you’re beginning to understand the problem. ‘Cause here’s the thing: ISPs are already allowed to collect and sell your data. The regulations that just got voted down weren’t even going to go into effect until October of this year, and they only required ISPs to get users to opt-in before selling their data. A step in the right direction, perhaps, but not a difficult barrier for major ISPs to overcome.
In other words, the idea that you have any privacy on the Internet in the first place was, to be blunt, foolish. Snowden confirmed that the government was snooping years ago, and those splashy headlines made for a few months of public outcry, but ISPs have been able to peek at, record, and sell your Internet browsing habits (yes, even the habits you reserve for Incognito windows) since the first time you want online.
They. See. Everything.
Why I’m Happy
In a couple ways, this legislation is a good thing. The free market enthusiast in me, frankly, thinks ISPs should be allowed to collect and sell the information you send through their pipes, though I also think informed consent is part of a fair deal. Facebook gets to read, retain, and monetize everything you post, too, no matter how many “Roman Statute” shitposts you fall for—that’s part of the deal. And if you’re in the market for services that prevent your data from being captured and sold, you have a range of VPNs to choose from.
More importantly, though, this legislation might finally help people realize that the Internet is a public place in oh so many ways. There’s no such thing as privacy or anonymity; there’s only trusting that the people who can see what you’re doing aren’t going to tell anyone else. Even if you’re using a VPN service, the VPN provider can see everything you’re doing from their servers. Unless you own and operate all your own Internet infrastructure, you’re at the mercy of those who do.
Or you can just not go online.
In a world where information is money, either you’re going to have to pay to keep your info secret, or someone else will pay to get their eyes on it. Both, if you’re really unlucky.
When it comes to privacy, we don’t really have many “rights” when we’re using tools and infrastructure provided by for-profit companies. If an ISP comes along promising never to snoop, record, or sell third-party data, I’ll sign up. I’ll have a strong civil case if they violate that contract, too, but as for some overarching right to privacy being violated…that’s a stretch. I’d also be pretty pissed if I found out AT&T had set up cameras to record things I do when I’m not online and using their services. But when I am? I’m fair game, and I know it.
Finally, the rest of the country does, too.
p.s. Minnesota’s legislature just passed a bill imposing essentially the same regulations on ISPs that the federal regulations would have imposed. So call your state rep, if you’re so inclined.
Daniel A. Guttenberg is an Atlanta-based writer who fell into the startup world by accident and has been gleefully treading water ever since. He will be survived by his beard and his legacy of procrastination.
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