Is Privacy Truly What Drives Privacy Advocates in Internet Fights?

Brian McNicoll
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Posted: Jul 12, 2017 10:00 AM
Is Privacy Truly What Drives Privacy Advocates in Internet Fights?

It’s Day of Action time again.

These “days”– when activists pour into the streets and flood government agencies and their representatives in Congress with calls, letters, faxes and emails – have become almost as common in the Trump era as Twitter explosions.

The president’s stark anti-regulatory bent has warmed the hearts of conservatives and most entrepreneurs, but it has given self-interested corporations and the grievance-meisters of the left head-spinning levels of heartburn.

The left and its strange corporate bedfellows thought they had the battle won when it came to regulating the Internet in February 2015, when the Federal Communications Commission voted to reclassify Internet Service Providers as Title II common carriers – the regulatory class designed for Ma Bell.

But in May, the FCC, under new leadership, voted to formally begin the process to overturn the net neutrality rule. This triggered a 60-day initial comment period, which ends July 17, just days after the Day of Action.

On top of that, Congress voted earlier this year to overturn an Obama-era rule – made possible by the reclassification of ISPs as Title II common carriers – that created a confusing and unbalanced framework for online privacy that applied to ISPs but curiously not to the Googles of the world.

That’s two shots across the bow for the coalition of the agency-captured – Amazon, Mozilla, Reddit, Kickstarter, Etsy and Vimeo – and the expropriators of the far left, who have tried to turn support for government control of the Internet into something of a civil rights issue.

The coalition is ready to go to the mat for net neutrality – “URGENT: If you’re not freaking out about Net Neutrality right now, you’re not paying attention,” blared the headline on BattleForTheNet.com, the organizing website that’s calling for protests and various “actions” on July 12.

But when it comes to the privacy issues, some members of the coalition seem to have lost some enthusiasm for the cause.

Groups such as Fight for The Future, FreePress and Public Knowledge were leaders in the fight to convince the FCC to establish these rules and of the losing battle on the Congressional Review Act vote to repeal them.

They claimed personal data, such as browser history, now could be sold and a gap in privacy protection would appear even though browser history always has been protected. They even tried to buy the browser history for several Republican members of Congress and bought billboards in their home states and districts that said, “They betrayed you.”

But the money is not in privacy advocacy – at least not right now. It’s in the gold standard for online advocacy, and that’s net neutrality.

That’s where the coalition of online content giants are because – despite what they say about wanting to make it easy for the little guy to compete – they want policies that create significant barriers of entry for any prospective newcomers. And they’re willing to spend big bucks to make it happen. For reference, they spent a record $139.5 million in lobbying expenses to get net neutrality over the finish line in 2015.

Take Amazon, for instance. Title II designation – and the regulations that go with it – is supposed to improve access for smaller competitors. Yet this firm, which could become the first trillion-dollar company, supports it, as do fellow behemoths Google and Facebook.

Second, “no blocking” is a battle cry of the net neutrality set. But on the very day Amazon announced its purchase of Whole Foods, it came out that Amazon has a patent on a way to block customers from comparison shopping online while in its stores. That’s hypocrisy at its finest.  

If privacy advocacy still paid, you would be hearing a lot more about the BROWSER Act, a proposal by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., which would seem to give privacy advocates what they want. It would require people to give explicit permission to their internet service providers to use their browsing history and other data for business purposes through an opt-in approval system. It would allow consumers to opt out of having non-sensitive information released.

But privacy groups can’t support Blackburn’s legislation because it will create a uniform framework for privacy that applies to both ISPs and edge providers, such as Google and Facebook. And that will be regulated through the Federal Trade Commission rather than the Federal Communications Commission, which means it will be difficult to ever restore the Title II designation.

So although they claim to care about selling your browser history and disclosing your inner-most secrets, what these groups truly care about is money. They’re not out supporting a potential solution to their problems. They’re out working for net neutrality, which has little to do with them – simply because it pays better.