Just because Republicans can’t figure out a health-care plan that lowers premiums, covers everyone, and, most importantly, reduces taxes on the rich doesn’t mean they’re not getting anything done. Today, the Senate voted 50-48, along party lines, to roll back an FCC rule that required internet-service providers to obtain customers permission before selling their information to third parties. And not just your address and phone number: That information includes location information, browsing history, and the contents of unencrypted messages.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai’s defense of this reversal — which is not entirely unfair — is that it unfairly targets ISPs for exploiting user data, but not edge providers like Facebook and Google, which also profit substantially from information gathered while you use their services. It’s just that, well, in a situation where one set of giant companies is allowed to exploit consumers and another isn’t, the solution should probably be to prevent all the giant companies from exploiting consumers. Instead, the FCC’s response is to just let every company sell that information, unregulated — an immense violation of user privacy. But, hey, so long as every corporation gets treated equally.
The ruling is the first major move by an FCC regime expected to be much more friendly to the internet-service providers and telecom companies that control the material infrastructure over which the internet moves, and much more hostile to the large software companies that have grown up on that infrastructure. Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, is an open foe of net neutrality — the internet-beloved principle that requires ISPs to treat all traffic equally — and companies like Netflix are already gearing up for a world in which telecoms are legally allowed to throttle (or accelerate) their connections. This isn’t to say the best possible world is one in which infrastructure companies are heavily regulated, and software providers are free to operate as they choose — ideally, the FCC would be an aggressive advocate for consumers in dealings with Google and Comcast equally. But an FCC primed to deregulate internet service seems like the worst of all possible worlds for consumer safety, privacy, and cost.
ISPs began lobbying the FCC to approve their ability to surreptitiously profit off of sensitive customer data as the Trump administration took hold. The congressional effort was spearheaded by Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. Earlier this week, Flake asked Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch if he would “rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck,” a popular thought problem on Reddit that has become a meme in itself. The question came from Flake’s teenage son; Flake himself admitted ignorance about the internet. Didn’t stop him from regulating it though.