As has been the trend since the advent of the Trump administration in January, we’ve had an eventful week in American politics. Most notable, of course, was the failure of the American Healthcare Act, which resulted in the continued health coverage of 24 million Americans. However, with the secured protection of our health many may not have noticed that we are on our way to potentially losing some of the privacy benefits the Obama administration’s Federal Communications Commission worked to protect via the Broadband Consumer Privacy Proposal.
The Broadband Consumer Privacy Proposal established online privacy rules that essentially ensured that companies could only receive information about consumer browsing given permission from the user. Now that Ajit Pai (a former lawyer for Verizon) is in control of the FCC he’s bent on taking away these protections in favor of the companies who could benefit from knowing consumer browsing habits. With this information, these companies could then monitor people’s online activities as well as manipulate the content that these people will see. On Thursday, the Senate voted in favor of a bill that claims that since the Internet is technically considered a utility like electricity, the government has a right to collect information such as individual search history and then sell it to the company willing to pay the most for the information.
All of this should be pretty concerning to just about everyone who uses the Internet. In order to increase public awareness that the loss of this privacy is even at stake Private Internet Access, a company that provides virtual private networks bought out an entire page in the New York Times:
What is especially important to note here is that only members of the Republican Party are supporting this bill. Granted this isn’t terribly surprising since it puts more power into the hands of businesses, but it does seem surprising in the sense that it guarantees a “big government” presence in the homes of the American people. However, given the amount of money that Internet Service Providers have invested towards getting rid of Internet privacy restrictions it makes a bit more sense.
Critics of this bill argue that it violates the Fourth Amendment which protects “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” and can only be violated given “probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” But here’s where it gets even trickier. Some claim that the Internet is within the public domain and so even though we may access it within the privacy of our own home the Fourth Amendment doesn’t really apply here. It’s a concept we discussed a bit more towards the beginning of the semester especially in respect to the Lawrence v. Texas case. How far can we stretch the Fourth Amendment? Is the Internet too broad and accessible to be considered someone’s private property? Do we value capitalist gain over consumer rights and privacy? I like to think that we should put the privacy and protection of the American people above potential profit, but there are 50 senators who don’t seem to share that mentality.