To Serve AT&T and Comcast, Congressional GOP Votes to Destroy Online Privacy
By Glenn Greenwald
Mar 29 2017
Clarifying events in politics are often healthy even when they produce awful outcomes. Such is the case with yesterday’s vote by House Republicans to free internet service providers (ISPs) – primarily AT&T, Comcast and Verizon – from the Obama-era FCC regulations barring them from storing and selling their users’ browsing histories without their consent. The vote followed an identical one last week in the Senate exclusively along party lines.
It’s hard to overstate what a blow to individual privacy this is. Unlike Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google – which can track and sell only those activities of yours which you engage in while using their specific service – ISPs can track everything you do online. “These companies carry all of your Internet traffic and can examine each packet in detail to build up a profile on you,” explained two experts from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Worse, it is not particularly difficult to avoid using specific services (such as Facebook) that are known to undermine privacy, but consumers often have very few choices for ISPs; it’s a virtual monopoly.
It’s hardly rare for the U.S. Congress to enact measures gutting online privacy: indeed, the last two decades have ushered in a legislative scheme that implements a virtually ubiquitous Surveillance State composed of both public intelligence and military agencies along with their private-sector “partners.” Members of Congress voting for these pro-surveillance measures invariably offer the pretext that they are acting for the benefit of American citizens – whose privacy they are gutting – by Keeping Them Safe™.
But what distinguishes this latest vote is that this pretext is unavailable. Nobody can claim with a straight face that allowing AT&T and Comcast to sell their users’ browser histories has any relationship to national security. Indeed, there’s no minimally persuasive rationale that can be concocted for this vote. It manifestly has only one purpose: maximizing the commercial interests of these telecom giants at the expense of ordinary citizens. It’s so blatant here that it cannot even be disguised.
That’s why, despite its devastating harm for individual privacy, there is a beneficial aspect to this episode. It illustrates – for those who haven’t yet realized it – who actually dominates Congress and owns its members: the corporate donor class.
There is literally no constituency in favor of this bill other than these telecom giants. It’d be surprising if even a single voter who cast their ballot for Trump or a GOP Congress even thought about, let alone favored, rescission of privacy-protecting rules for ISPs. So blatant is the corporate-donor servitude here that there’s no pretext even available for pretending this benefits ordinary citizens. It’s a bill written exclusively by and for a small number of corporate giants exclusively for their commercial benefit at the expense of everyone else.