Trump just made the final pen stroke to approve SJ Res 34, commonly known in the media as the bill that killed your Internet privacy. If effectively rolls back rules the FCC introduced last October to force Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to have customer approval before ISPs can use or sell customer browsing history for targeted advertising.
Over the past week, many Internet experts have treated this act as if the government has personally dug into your browsing history and set up a yard sale for interested third parties.
It’s natural to have a concerned reaction. Internet privacy sucks. Gird your loins and fire up your favorite VPN.
But I’m not sure how many people actually understand what all this changes. Hell, I had to open up twelve different tabs on this stuff just to understand everything.
So what has changed? Well, technically nothing.
Internet Privacy Continues To Suck
Main case and point to my “Internet privacy sucks” argument: the rules that were just repealed were never in effect.
In the FCC’s defense, enforcing total privacy is difficult.
The Internet is a decentralized network of computers that spans the entire globe. Different ISPs and websites are subjected to a ton of different rules and laws. Everything is so fragmented that enforcing the ideal of Internet privacy would be impossible.
Even in a single country like the US, privacy enforcement is difficult. Things are still fragmented between two organizations with similar abbreviations: the FCC and the FTC.
Hang on with me for a moment.
You may wonder why one organization doesn’t just handle “everything Internet related” in the US. Well, originally the FTC did.
Then, Congress decided to do a little word play to reclassify ISPs with a term that fell under the FCC’s influence. That led to the new rules about browsing data and net neutrality, which led to more controversy, which led us to this point.
The FCC hit the pause button on these rules in order to address and fix concerns brought up by ISPs. In fact, a gap in privacy rules has existed with ISPs because the FTC’s current rules didn’t apply anymore and the FCC’s rules were just nice sounding words.
Whether this is good or bad or the end of the world is beside the point. If we want true privacy regulation and enforcement (hint: we do), the FCC rules were just a short term fix for a bigger issue.
Where Do These Rules Come From?
Here is a fun little question to test your friends at your next swanky shindig: how old are the laws that influence Internet privacy in the US?
If you answered, “Older than the Internet itself,” you get a gold star!
Any organization that is tasked with enforcing online privacy rules, whether it’s the FTC, FCC, or some other mysterious government entity with three letters, largely interprets and enforces the rules laid out in the Communications Act of 1934.
In case you’re like me and math isn’t your strong suit, 1934 came much earlier than 2017. These rules were first created to govern the use of old-school tech like the telegraph, radio, and the first telephone lines.
That would be like if NASA, while building rockets to go to the moon, was held to the same standards as old zeppelin manufacturers. Actually, in that case, their rules would be a lot more recent.
Recognizing that these rules were a bit outdated, the US government did try to update them at one point: in 1996. That’s when the Internet was about five years old, Google was negative two years old, and Mark Zuckerburg was just teetering on puberty.
Back then, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which basically tried to overhaul certain parts of the original act to match current telecommunications technology.
Since that time, internet privacy law has struggled to keep up with the technology. This is why we continue to have debates about online privacy and net neutrality.
The FCC rules that Congress and President Trump have rolled back were a bandaid for this larger problem. It was a short-term solution that would probably fall apart when the technology changes again.
Rest assured, enterprising companies and individuals are always going to find new ways to store and transfer your personal information. That means they will also find new ways to share or sell this information.
Getting True Internet Privacy
If we want true online privacy, more effective solutions are required. Until the laws that govern Internet use in the US are updated, true Internet privacy is still an ideal.
We need a way to dynamically update these laws as fast as the technology itself evolves. Unfortunately, this legislation process is slower than the distribution of a new Android update.
In the meantime, we are left with the same means of protecting our privacy as our ancestors had in the Old West: personal responsibility and diligence. Whether that means opting yourself out, restricting your internet browsing, or using a VPN, it’s up to you.
Treat your online privacy like a plot of land that has been in your family for generations. Defended it at all cost or sell it to the highest bidder.
It’s completely up to you… kind of.