By dismantling domestic privacy laws, the US will lose control of the global internet
If Donald Trump signs off changes, he weakens America’s ‘global village’ role
By Evgeny Morozov
The numerous paradoxes that will haunt Donald Trump in the coming months were on full display during the recent Senate vote to undo privacy legislation that was passed in the last few years of the Obama administration.
As part of a broader effort to treat internet service providers and telecoms operators as utility companies, Obama imposed restrictions on what these companies could do with all the user data from browsers and apps. Emboldened by Trump, the Republicans have just allowed these businesses to collect, sell and manipulate such data without user permission.
From the short-sighted domestic perspective, it seems like a boon to the likes of Verizon and AT&T, especially as they increasingly find themselves confronting their data-rich counterparts in Silicon Valley.
Telecoms companies have been complaining (not entirely without reason) that the Obama administration favoured the interests of Google and Facebook which, invoking the lofty rhetoric of “keeping the internet free” only to defend their own business agenda, have traditionally faced somewhat lighter regulation.
The Democrats, always happy to attack Trump, have jumped on the issue, warning that the Senate vote would foster ubiquitous and extensive surveillance by the telecoms industry – and Silicon Valley, of course, would never commit such sins.
Under the new rules, complained Bill Nelson, a senator from Florida, “your broadband provider may know more about your health – and your reaction to illness – than you are willing to share with your doctor”. Never mind that Google and Facebook already know all this – and much more – and generate little outrage from the Democrats.
The Democrats, of course, only have themselves to blame for such ineptitude. From the early 1980s onwards, centre-left movements on both sides of the Atlantic no longer discussed technology policy in terms of justice, fairness or inequality. Instead, they preferred to emulate their neoliberal opponents and frame choices – about technology policy, but also about many other domains – in terms of just one goal that rules supreme above all other: innovation.
The problem with building a political programme on such flimsy economistic foundations is that it immediately opens the door to competing narratives of just what kind of policy produces more innovation.
Within this debate, the entire history of the internet – a fluid and borderless object that can include everything from mainframe computers to software that powers servers – becomes an extremely contentious theme that, depending on how one slices and dices this very “internet”, can bolster demands for both greater regulation and greater deregulation of digital technologies.
Whatever Trump’s proclaimed departures from the deadening orthodoxy of the Republican party, he shares its bizarre view – endorsed and promoted by Fox News and a new breed of savvy media enterprises, such as Breitbart – that the Democrats are just a bunch of closeted socialists who invoke the highfalutin rhetoric of “human rights” or “humanitarianism” to disguise their real radical agenda.
This piercing insight doesn’t prevent Trump from also attacking Hillary Clinton and her lieutenants as being in the pay of Wall Street and Goldman Sachs: apparently, this is where ardent socialists plan the revolution these days.