Privacy must be upheld over business interests

Privacy must be upheld over business interests

While most of the action in American politics this past week had to do with either Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing or the debacle in Congress concerning healthcare, one piece of legislation that failed to attract major attention was a resolution to repeal an Obama-era law that provides internet privacy protections for consumers.

The motion passed in the Senate on Thursday in a vote of 50 to 48 and the House will likely sign off on the resolution and send it to President Donald Trump’s desk for approval soon.

In essence, the bill is an effort to roll back technology and telecommunications regulations that many Republicans consider to be an undue burden on companies.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who sponsored the bill, spoke to the matter when he noted that the agency regulations drafted during the Obama Administration are “unnecessary and confusing” and went on to say that they function as “another innovation-stifling regulation.”

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But some consumer advocacy groups disagreed with that assessment.

Dallas Harris, a policy fellow for the consumer group Public Knowledge, asserted that “these were the strongest online privacy rules to date and this vote is a huge step backwards in consumer protection writ large.”

The main gripe that Republican legislators have, though, is that they view the rules that Harris speaks of as unfair and inconsistent.

The regulations, they point out, only apply to telecom carriers and not to web companies like Google and Facebook that also afford access to online content.

In order for the policy to make sense, they reason, the FTC must act as a watchdog for all online privacy, and not just internet service providers (ISPs).

The problem with this argument, however, is that consumers have very few options for how they can obtain broadband access, making them especially prone to data collection by ISPs.

The Senate’s vote on Thursday was certainly a step in the wrong direction, but it is worth noting that even before this motion, privacy on the internet hardly existed at all.

To illustrate this fact, a privacy law expert named Jenny Afia rewrote Instagram’s terms of use policy in kid-friendly language so that parents could have a meaningful conversation with their children about privacy on the internet.

Even for those who believe that they are aware of how much privacy they forfeit online, the rewrite is still nothing short of shocking when one actually reads it.

“We may keep, use and share your personal information with companies connected with Instagram,” the document reads.

“This information includes your name, email address, school, where you live, pictures, phone number, your likes and dislikes, where you go, who your friends are, how often you use Instagram and any other personal information we find such as your birthday or who you are chatting with, including in private messages (DMs).”

But wait, that’s not all.

The document then addresses a common concern for many who use Instagram, which is that the company might be observing your browsing history to figure out what you are interested in online.

As it turns out, Instagram does just that.

“We might send you advertisements connected to your interests which we are monitoring,” the document affirms. “You cannot stop us from doing this and it will not always be obvious that it is an advertisement.”

After looking at this helpful guide, it would appear that allowing internet service providers to exercise even more freedom than they already do would certainly be detrimental to consumers.   

In effect, Instagram and companies like it practically guarantee that their users will have little to no privacy when they use their apps. Bringing ISPs into that maelstrom will only create more problems.

It is unlikely that either the House or Trump will vote against the repeal, but that is exactly what they must do if they want to keep consumers’ best interests at heart.

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