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writing for godot

The Internet Stalking Service Provider Bill

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Written by Peter Avanti   
Wednesday, 29 March 2017 04:54

The House and Senate voted last week, to roll back common sense Federal Communications Commission rules to stop internet service providers (ISPs) from tracking, packaging, and selling your internet browsing data (where, what, who, when, how long) to advertisers. Predictably Republicans backing the wholly partisan, industry written, legislation insist the move is “pro-competition” and will improve your browsing experience. They are disingenuous at best as it is a blatant invasion of privacy without consent that will not improve service at all as it lards the bank accounts of the people behind it. “Service providers” collection of private data and its sale makes a mockery of personal liberty and privacy rights, the legislation might well be called “The Internet Stalking Service Provider Bill”.

The internet is a public utility, and internet service providers (ISPs) should be “common carriers” just like telephone services or the electric grid. The companies that provide access were rightly dubbed service providers, given their purpose is exactly that, to be neutral in providing access to internet sites and information. An ISP was never intended to collect private browsing data, or to sell it to the highest bidder. Much less, to do so without consent, and without payment for its use.

A public utility must sit above the fray and flow of commerce and information that it facilitates. This is essential to the meaning and promise of “net neutrality”, and the overriding reason a “utility” cannot be implicated in the collection and sale of data about its clients. The internet is best understood as a public road that passes by millions of addresses where commerce and the exchange of information take place. You can tax users to pay for construction, access, and maintenance, but where we go, who we visit, what we buy or sell, whatever we do, is our private business.  As with virtually any public space (commercial or not) the relation of the operator to the client is restricted to the service provided, there can not be any non-consensual, silent, parasitical, adjunct commerce.

Can you imagine the outcry if a supermarket was found to be collecting and selling information about your purchases, or your doctor selling your medical data? If you walk through a large department store and browse the various departments would you accept that someone follows you around writing down what you looked at, and for how long you lingered?  We understand each of these examples as a conspiracy to invade privacy. A form of stalking with commercial intent.

The obvious question about the process emerges: If we can package and sell browsing data, who can buy it? Will we be able to purchase information about our neighbors, or our political representatives? Once obtained, by whoever is powerful or wealthy enough to purchase, how can the information be used? These questions scream litigation, more legislation, and corporate lobbying. By designating internet service providers “common carriers” with no mandate to collect or sell private information we avoid the obvious web of litigation by simply not allowing any of it to happen.

The vast majority of people, and nations of the world (not just the USA), believe that a telephone service utility should not be able to collect and examine call data without just cause (a warrant), much less sift through it and sell it. If internet service providers can sell personal data, but cannot sell your telephone data, smart phones becomes an odd piece of equipment indeed.  If you call your doctor and talk about your condition it’s private, if you go to her website and book an appointment for lab tests, it’s public and you can expect emails and ads from around the corner and around the globe telling you what you need, need to know, and offering services of one kind or another. It should be, by any measure, your right to accept or reject this use of your personal life.

This is so obvious that it should not be a contentious, a public service is ethically and constitutionally incompatible with a commercial project to turn the inevitable private information that passes through the utility into a profit stream. Freedom of speech is irremediably compromised if whatever is said or done on the most powerful and pervasive information platform ever devised by human skill is being recorded, catalogued, and packaged for sale to people or corporations whose scope is to exploit it.

It goes without saying that the passage of the Internet Stalking Service Provider Bill should be opposed and contested in every way possible, in public and in court, before and after Mr. Trump (a man obsessed by his own privacy but evidently willing to sell that of others) signs it. And Democrats should get on record publicly, including introducing a bill to guarantee that providing internet service means exactly, and only, to provide service.

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