Congressman defends voting to repeal ISP privacy rules because ‘nobody’s got to use the internet’

Congress and the President, historically, don’t have the best grasp of how the internet works or ought to be managed. This tendency cuts across both parties, from Ted Stevens’ (R-Alaska) infamous comments about a “series of tubes,” to bipartisan (though somewhat Democratic-leaning) SOPA support, to Trump’s declaration in December 2015 that we should ‘close the internet‘ as a means of stopping terrorism. If you’re waiting for Congress or the president to display a true, deep grasp of technology, you’re going to be waiting awhile. That said, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) has set a new (albeit temporary) record for “Congressional Representative With No Idea How the Real World Works These Days.”

During a town hall meeting last week, Sensenbrenner argued that ISPs shouldn’t face regulations separate from what a company like Facebook faces when it wants to monetize your personal information. (Whether FB should have access to what it wants to sell is an argument for a different time). When challenged on this claim by someone who correctly understood that Facebook and your ISP have very different levels of access to your personal data, Sensenbrenner said the following:

You know, again, nobody’s got to use the internet. And the thing is, if you start regulating the internet like a utility, if you did that right at the beginning, we’d have no internet. Internet companies have invested an awful lot of money in having almost universal services, now. And the fact is, you know, I don’t think it’s my job to tell you that you cannot get advertising through your information being sold. My job, I think, is to tell you that you have the opportunity to do it and then you take it upon yourself to make the choice that the government should give you. And that’s what the law has been and I think we ought to have more choices, rather than fewer choices.

First off, Sensenbrenner is right when he says that by waiving the FCC’s privacy rules, Congress is merely returning to the initial status quo. The FCC’s rules never went into effect, so functionally, nothing changed when Congress overruled it. Luckily, he makes up for it by being completely wrong in almost everything he says thereafter.

Sensenbrenner is flatly wrong when he says nobody “has” to use the Internet. Many companies now require job applications to be submitted online. When my fiancée and I recently shopped for a new apartment, multiple property companies informed us that applications for their complexes could only be submitted online. If you’ve signed up for paperless billing (or been signed up for it automatically), your only means of communication with your utility or service providers is likely through an online account. Paper either costs more, or is no longer available. Many work projects these days (including those worked on from home) require access to Google Docs or at least Microsoft Word and email. Don’t have a connection? You can’t do your job.

Now, it’s definitely possible to live without personally purchasing internet services and some people still do. That might mean only using a mobile device, visiting a local library, using free Wi-Fi provided by McDonalds or Starbucks, or just finding companies that still do business the old-fashioned way. But most of these alternatives are either substantially less convenient or unworkable in certain situations. You can’t use Wi-Fi if you don’t have a laptop, smartphone, or tablet, and public library access to the internet won’t help you if your library doesn’t offer it. Older phones, with older browsers, may be technically capable of accessing the ‘net, but incapable of doing so at a speed that’s practical.

Sensenbrenner’s other comments are a panoply of wrong. The various OECD countries have pursued various strategies for managing broadband and ISP rules. None of them, including those with state-owned providers, have ended up “with no internet.” Furthermore, when home internet access was rolling out in the period he refers to, there were no advertising giants hoovering up data about their users, or selling this information in the open market. In fact, when Google bought DoubleClick back in 2007, one of the promises it had to make to secure permission to do so was that it wouldn’t combine data collected by Google’s other services with data from DoubleClick’s advertising business. Last year, Google came under fire for quietly dropping this policy and moving to combine the two sets of information. Verizon, of course, did it 18 months ago.

Sensenbrenner is wrong that strong privacy protections or limits on ISPs data gathering would’ve killed the early internet, because this type of information parsing wasn’t going on in 1997 or 1998. Google agreed to limits on how it used and merged user information back in 2007, and Google clearly hasn’t gone anywhere in the past decade.

Finally, Sensenbrenner states, “I don’t think it’s my job to tell you that you cannot get advertising through your information being sold.”

He’s ridiculously wrong on this point as well. Polls agree: Republicans, Democrats, and Independents do not like that their data is sold by ISPs. They did not want these privacy restrictions walked back. They do not view allowing the sale of customer data to anyone who might be interested as a positive, and the federal government is, for better or worse, the only other balancing force in the room. Very few people want to get advertising through their information being sold. The cheeky might also note that while advertising was a key component of the TV market, nobody had to sign their TV viewing history away to Clorox in exchange for being allowed to view a bleach commercial.

His remarks on choice are nearly offensive when considered against the reality of ISP services today. Most Americans have 1-2 choices for their ISP, at most. There’s no opportunity to move to a service that “does it better,” because those services do not exist. The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, has a long, proud history of buying, sponsoring, writing, preferring to donate to politicians that support strict regulations on municipal broadband proposals, to the point that such proposals are functionally unworkable due to revenue restrictions, strict subscriber limits, extremely broad definitions for what constitutes “broadband” when determining if a city is underserved, and expensive, long-term multi-year studies that must be completed before any proposal can be put forward.

The internet is already a near-necessity today. It’s not hard to imagine it will absolutely be a necessity 10 years from now. Sensenbrenner’s remarks about “choice” assume that meaningful choice exists today when, in reality, it doesn’t.

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