The Pitt News

Editorial: Internet privacy bill puts consumers at risk

Yuri Samoilov | Flickr

Yuri Samoilov | Flickr

Yuri Samoilov

Yuri Samoilov

Yuri Samoilov | Flickr

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

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There’s little more central to modern life — especially for younger people — than the internet. But a federal bill about to land on President Donald Trump’s desk for his approval threatens to make this staple of contemporary life much riskier.

In a party-line vote in the House of Representatives Monday, Congressional Republicans pushed through a law that would rescind regulations passed by former President Barack Obama’s administration last year. The rules dealt with internet providers’ use of online consumer information, disallowing the sale of users’ personal information without prior consent.

The repeal would mean that internet service providers, like Verizon and AT&T, would no longer be required to ask permission before selling users’ information to advertisers. The vote also swept away Obama-era measures that required service providers to take “reasonable measures” to protect consumers’ information from hackers. In the event of hackers stealing the information, companies were required to quickly make the individual aware — a regulation they will no longer have to follow.

Citing the “uncertainty and confusion” created by the Obama rules protecting privacy, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said in a comment to the Washington Post the repeal would actually improve consumer privacy on the internet. According to the representative, these regulations would be less confusing for individuals, consequently improving privacy. Blackburn, who has received over half a million dollars in campaign contributions from internet service providers over the course of her political career, contended that the rule protecting consumer privacy online is an overextension of government power.

But it’s difficult to apply this typically Republican approach to regulations to the treatment of individuals’ information online. If we were in a time period where internet use for personal records was optional, it would make sense to think of online privacy as a liberty instead of a right — something that couldn’t be taken away by the government, but which the government would make no extra effort to protect.

Internet use today, however, is anything but optional for the vast majority of Americans. Whether it be taxes, college applications or work communication, it’s difficult to participate in society without the use of online services, even for those not wealthy enough to own a personal computer. It’s true that few people read the signed agreements that allow companies to sell users’ browsing information. But they nevertheless form the basis of a reasonable expectation of privacy on the internet.

Beyond the fact that most internet users don’t have much of a choice whether or not to store personal information online, in many parts of the country they don’t even have a choice of which provider to trust with this information. According to data from the Federal Communications Commission, over two-thirds of Americans have to choose between just two different broadband service providers. Another 28 percent have only one choice, as internet availability has spread only slowly to less affluent sections of the country.

While the GOP repeal negatively affects everyone’s privacy, it will likely have an especially unfavorable effect on younger and college-aged Americans. According to a 2016 study from the Pew Research Center, those under 29 are significantly more likely than individuals 65 and older to have shared personal information online.

The House’s vote to pass this repeal bill is undeniably a significant blow to online privacy in the United States, and it’s likely that it will be signed into law by Trump when it reaches his desk. However, it’s still extremely important to express opposition to the legislation even as it turns into law, whether it be through calling your representative, participating in a rally or simply voting in the next election.

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., our representative in the House, has created a petition on the White House’s website asking Trump to veto the proposed legislation. Signing the petition, regardless of the bill’s outcome, will send an important message to Republicans in the federal government that we don’t support their position on the issue of internet privacy.

Whether or not we agree on other issues, one thing seems clear: it’s wrong to force anyone to hand over their personal information. No one should be voting in favor of making that happen.

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Editorial: Internet privacy bill puts consumers at risk