A false sense of internet privacy

What is privacy on the internet?

Well, a smart person would probably tell you that it doesn’t exist, and you should probably assume as much as you spend time online.

But according to the spin from the Obama-era Federal Communication Commission, privacy on the internet does exist, thanks to them. That’s what they say they did when they pushed forward with their “internet privacy” regulations, one of the many last-minute regulatory burdens they imposed on us before leaving Washington.

Supposedly, this regulation protected you from having your information sold by nefarious, evil companies, trying to profit from you while surreptitiously collecting your darkest secrets and as much information on you as possible so they could … more effectively sell you things.

The remarkable thing about the regulation is that people bought the spin. When Congress voted to roll back what, in reality, is an unfair, partisan regulation by the FCC, the internet — and opinion column writers across the country — lost their collective minds.

Gnashing their teeth, with one collective voice, they all said that privacy on the internet was dead, and that the evil Republicans had just voted to let companies sell all of your information. How could they?

Let’s separate the spin from reality, shall we?

Here in Maine, both Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Bruce Poliquin voted to eliminate the regulation, and they were both right to do so. Why? Because the FCC’s regulation did nothing — I repeat, nothing — to protect your privacy.

Most obviously, because the proposed rules never went into effect. The attempted action changed no practice by any Internet Service Provider. You weren’t somehow safe yesterday, only to be exposed today. Congress did not repeal internet privacy and your browser history is not for sale.

What Congress essentially did was preserve the system as it has existed all along. Same privacy rules. Same protections (or non-protections). It was the FCC regulation that was going to change the system as it had existed for a very long time.

And what was that system?

Well, for more than two decades, the Federal Trade Commission has been the main entity that seeks to protect the public from online fraud. The FTC’s privacy rules have given us all clear and concise guidelines about what is and is not protected. They are clear, they are not overly obtrusive, and they worked.

However, in October 2016, with no experience or expertise in internet privacy, the unelected political appointees at the FCC pushed through a new regulation just before the end of the Obama Administration.

This regulation came over the bipartisan objections by the Obama-led FTC. The FCC, disregarding those objections, pushed out a set of rules for broadband providers that differed from the FTC rules.

Interestingly, those new FCC rules had no interest in supposedly “protecting us” from certain, specifically exempted companies — namely Google and Facebook — that collect every click we make and sell that information to the highest bidder.

Notably, and not at all coincidentally, the top executives of Google and Facebook have a rather famously close relationship to the Obama Administration, serving as advisers and large financial bundlers, and providing a revolving door of staff into the administration.

That is, in all seriousness, the very definition of crony capitalism, and should be opposed strenuously.

In any event, Congress’ rejection of the preposterous new regulation has given an opportunity to the FTC and the FCC to work together to strengthen internet privacy protections. These rules, according to the chairs of both agencies, will apply equally and include the most aggressive collectors and sellers of our personal information, like Google and Facebook, which the FCC exempted.

What has allowed the internet to have such unprecedented growth and to create so many inventive services is lightly regulated, simple, easy to understand, broadly applicable rules that afforded companies the freedom to innovate.

Polluting that process by creating a different set of rules just for internet providers would set a terrible precedent, and was justifiably opposed. Arbitrarily picking politically favored “winners” and creating “losers” of others is not only wrong, but always backfires in the marketplace.

Unfortunately (and predictably) this has turned into an unnecessary partisan issue. The quick, easy and lazy attacks of partisan leftists against Republicans like Collins and Poliquin have more to do with political opportunism, and less to do with fact, or good policy.

But when you wipe away the rhetoric, Congress did the right thing. They ditched an 11th hour, onerous, crony capitalistic regulation and gave us a chance to hit reset. Good for them.

That said, don’t wait for the government to protect your privacy. Protect it yourself.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.