The Universal Notebook: Internet privacy is an oxymoron

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If you want to know the difference between congressional Republicans and Democrats, look no further than the vote to repeal Obama-era internet privacy regulations that had not even gone into effect.

The House voted 215-210, largely along party lines, to repeal the protections and allow internet service providers to sell your search data to third parties without your consent. Rep. Bruce Poliquin voted for repeal. With the GOP, corporate profits always come before the common good. Rep. Chellie Pingree voted against repeal.

The Senate voted 50-48 along party lines to repeal the protections. Sen. Susan Collins, who only votes against her party when she knows it won’t change the outcome, could have made a decisive difference, but instead she voted with her Republican colleagues to sell her constituents’ internet browsing histories to corporate America. Sen. Angus King voted against repeal.

Poliquin and Collins resorted to the hogwash rationale that the problem was Federal Communications Commission privacy protections only applied to internet service providers, not to search engines like Google or social media sites like Facebook that can and do track and market your internet life. This argument is hogwash because Google and Facebook are free and optional and do not have access to our every keystroke the way ISPs do.

“Today’s vote,” Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said after the house vote, “means that Americans will never be safe online from having their most personal details stealthily scrutinized and sold to the highest bidder. Donald Trump, by giving away our data to the country’s leading phone and cable giants, is further undermining American democracy.”

Personally, I use Great Works Internet as my ISP because I have always received fast, personal service from a local company. I was pleased therefore to read that Fletcher Kittredge, chief executive of GWI, pledged that his company will not even collect individual data, let alone sell it without a customer’s consent.

“You can’t be a full citizen and fully engaged in the political process without internet access,” Kittredge told me last week.

Kittredge believes internet privacy should not be a partisan issue. He believes Republicans in Congress were sold a bill of goods by cable, telecom, wireless and advertising lobbyists.

I see it as a matter of Republicans caught up in a deregulation mania, repealing common-sense regulations that most of them actually would have supported if they thought twice about it. In fact, a few days after they voted to repeal internet privacy protections, some 50 House Republicans sent a letter to the FCC chairman urging the agency to protect internet privacy. Duh?

“What they should have done is put privacy rules in place for everyone,” says Kittredge. “Collecting, sharing and selling data should not be allowed for anyone.”

I’d be prepared to accept the idea that Republicans in Congress just didn’t know what they were doing (as is often the case) were it not for the fact that they repealed FCC regulations using the Congressional Review Act, a cynical move that prohibits the FCC from promulgating “substantially similar” privacy rules. That smells rotten to me.

Kittredge believes Congress used the expedited review act because, otherwise, the repeal of the FCC regulations would have had to have been based on supporting facts, just as their original enactment was.

“I believe it would have been hard to remove these regulation,” Kittredge said, “because they were supported by facts. I believe they just rammed this through.”

Because the Republicans in Congress poisoned the federal regulatory well, it now falls to the states to enact privacy protections and at least 14 states are now considering some form of internet privacy bill. Maine should do the same.

Politically, repealing internet privacy rules was a bonehead move by a bonehead Congress in service of a bonehead administration. Realistically, however, you should have no expectation of privacy when you are on the internet. You should assume some foul-smelling, antisocial hacker, corporate stooge or foreign agent is recording every keystroke in hopes of marketing you to companies that peddle what you peruse or purchase.

What you should not have to worry about is that the ISP you pay for internet access will place a super cookie on your account, tracking everywhere you go on the internet in order to sell you out the way the Republicans in Congress just did.

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In my April 14 “Who’s on first?” column I mistakenly described Red Sox great David Ortiz as African-American. In fact, Big Papi is a native of the Dominican Republic who became a naturalized American citizen in 2008.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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