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.

• • •

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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  • Chew H Bird

    Actually first nail in the removal of consumer protections was in allowing the FCC to regulate online services. That was the actual setup for this latest disaster by our current politicians. Now that the damage is complete, the FCC is essentially powerless to change it and the only realistic recourse is to remove the FCC from all oversight.

    I have 30 years in the IT industry and when a corporate executive uses the word “never” it is an immediate red flag. “Never” should never be used in conjunction with evolving technology.

    The people who voted to repeal the privacy protections should not be serving the American people.

    ISPs already have the data on our surfing habits. The data a necessary component of the technology they provide to internet users. The difference now is that data can be sold, traded, and bartered. Some can be used as detail level contract negotiations with content providers, (no sale needed), and as such the continued leakage of personal data will continue and be subject to the increasing number of data breaches across even more corporate entities.

    There is no “party line” that can justify this latest act. While Republicans did it, Responsible people on the other side should have stood up and used every possible effort to correct this long lasting and infinitely expensive disaster. Since this did not happen, I can only assume our entire legislative body is basically clueless about how the internet works and that is a dangerous situation for our entire country, not just the late night habits of citizens.

    • yathink2011

      Thank you for providing some factual information that doesn’t blame it on just one party.

      • EdBeem

        What part of “Republicans did it” don’t you understand?

        • yathink2011

          Al Gore invented the Internet.

          • EdBeem

            No he didn’t an he never claimed to. Chew stated above that Republicans were responsible for repealing internet privacy protections and for some unknown reason you seemed to think that was not the case.
            Here’s what Snopes says about Gore: Despite the multitudinous derisive references to the supposed quote that continue to be proffered even today, former U.S. vice president Al Gore never claimed that he “invented” the Internet, nor did he say anything that could reasonably be interpreted that way. The legend arose from critics and pundits who plucked a relatively credible statement Gore made during the course of an interview, altered its wording, and stripped it of context to make it seem a ridiculously self-serving falsehood.

          • yathink2011

            Kind of defensive today huh? The Republicans are not responsible for first allowing the sale of internet data. Many have been allowed to do it for years. The permissions are just being expanded. The horse is already out of the barn, it’s too late to close the door. The largest gathering of personal data has been done during the last 8 years, with the permission of King Obama. You can blame everything you want on the Republicans. But intelligent Americans know it wasn’t the Russians or, Jim Comey, that were responsible for your candidate losing the election. It was Hillary Clinton who was responsible for that.

          • EdBeem

            Not defensive. Just correcting your mistakes. I said Republicans repealed internet privacy regs. Chew said the same thing. You seemed to think he didn’t. Then you went on an Al Gore tangent, so I just pointed out that was yet another rightwing lie. Now you’re on to Hillary. No intelligent Americans voted for Trump btw.

          • yathink2011

            Calling them all unintelligent is a low point even for you. But don’t dispair, it looks like Hillary is going to run one last time.

          • EdBeem

            As I explained.

          • Chew H Bird

            The catch is the recent repeal of privacy protections, (Republicans), when combined with the FCC regulating decision, (Democrats), create a “perfect storm” of data collection opportunities for just about anyone with data mining capability.

            All of my clients who care at all about security are migrating from online remote tools to secure VPN and proxy servers. This is now, (in my opinion), a complete disaster for small accounting offices, law firms, small financial firms, and every medical clinic with any sort of web based access for their patients. Many, (if not most), of these small Maine businesses were barely compliant at best and now they will need to make significant investments in technical expertise, hardware, and software licensing to demonstrate attempted compliance within their fields of endeavor. There are also many loopholes in what minimal protections remain.

            Basically it took both parties, represented by elected officials with limited knowledge of how technology actually works, to supremely screw up regular citizens to this degree.

          • poppypapa

            No likable, good-natured Americans voted for Clinton btw.

          • JohnQCitizen

            Edgar, this is one of the most outrageous statements you have ever made. Have you no shame!

          • poppypapa

            And Al Gore paddling a canoe in a drying up Connecticut River was entirely true and unstaged.

  • knighthawk

    I wish GWI fiber would take off. I would have that in a heart beat.

  • Jimmy_John67

    Ed Beem of “I don’t value the opinions of anonymous internet commenters (unless, of course, they agree with me)” fame now cares about internet privacy and confidentiality? Guess Ed thinks the internet should be private except for his portion. Sad, but not surprising as usual.

  • peterplus

    Mr. Beem, why aren’t you writing about Trump’s brilliant governing dynamic. He knows that the vast majority of people who elected him are so stupid they will believe anything he tells them. This is brilliance on his part and breathtaking ignorance on the part of those who support him. Including Mr. Pence and Paul Ryan, two men who will go down as the greatest cowards ever to walk across the American political landscape.

    • EdBeem

      I’ll get to it one of these days. It’s just that the pathology report on the Trump administration is so complex. Hard to know where to begin.