When the Federal Communications Commission in October 2016 approved rules preventing internet providers from collecting and giving out personal information, it was hailed as a success for consumers and the first inklings of concrete digital privacy rights.
Nearly five months later, before the rules even officially enters effect, they are likely to dissolve.
Congress on Tuesday sent legislation to President Trump that frees telecommunication companies like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast from these privacy rules, allowing them to monitor customers’ behavior without permission and to collect and use their personal and financial information to sell highly targeted ads.
Because Trump will likely approve the legislation, companies that already make billions by providing internet access will be able to barter personal data for profit, sweeping away any control consumers may have had over their personal information in the process.
Bluntly, Congress, particularly Republicans, sold out the American people, and violated their right to privacy.
And internet users on both ends of the spectrum should be angry.
Our right to privacy should not end on the internet. Citizens should be able to control, for their own safety, where their private online data goes.
By allowing companies to collect all of this data and more without consent, it increases the likelihood of identity theft.
In the 2016 privacy rules, the FCC required that providers strengthen safeguards for customer data against hackers and thieves. However, if Trump signs, sensitive data may become easier to obtain as companies will no longer be held to these requirements.
The legislation also prevents the FCC from restoring its privacy regulations in the future. While the FCC may still sue companies that unjustly violate consumer privacy, it may not preemptively prevent privacy violations, meaning internet providers will likely be subject to less oversight.
Proponents of the bill see digital data as benign and overestimate internet providers’ safeguards against hackers. They also divide internet users into two camps: moral and immoral users. They presume those worried about privacy have something to hide.
They do not consider digital privacy as intrinsic to the privacy alluded to in the Fourth Amendment. This from a party that boasts of upholding the Constitution.
It has been proven time and time again that human behavior changes while under supervision. Governmental or commercial surveillance breeds conformity, obedience and submission. It creates a prison in the mind.
While this bill is a diluted form of such surveillance, it opens an avenue for legislation that could damage privacy, particularly digital privacy, severely.
Already, global democracies are enacting such legislation. In 2016, the United Kingdom passed the Investigatory Powers Act, a law similar to the bill headed to President Trump.
This statute requires internet providers store everyone’s web browsing histories for a year but lawmakers added a provision exempting politicians from commercial surveillance and allowing police, security services and official agencies access to the data.
Allowing providers to monitor consumer data is just one of the many predicted changes Republican-dominated Congress will make to internet regulation.
These changes come as Congress’s definition of the internet begins to shift. The internet, once considered a public utility like water, will be labeled a private luxury.
Net neutrality will likely be the next topic for revision, and Congress or the Trump administration may shoot for a bill similar to the Investigatory Powers Act.
In any case, the internet as we know it will change. For better or worse, only time will tell.
Jacob Knutson is a sophomore journalism and political science major from Rapid City, S.D.