Washington and every state capitol are full of people committed to serious policy work. Some work for legislatures. Others work in agencies or for councils. Many work for non-governmental organizations and think tanks.
This policy tribe, made up of people of all political persuasions, conform to some clear norms. They make proposals and arguments forged to convince those in power that their positions are disinterested, are based on empirically sound studies, would benefit more people than they would harm, and would serve the greater good over the long term. Even if a policy worker makes such an argument disingenuously, she or he conforms to these cultural expectations.
That’s why the Federal Communication Commission studied the issue of online privacy for years, solicited public comment, deliberated openly, and ruled in 2016 that telecommunication and cable companies must not exploit the intimate relationships that consumers have with their phones and computers. This was a serious policy process. The commission considered measured arguments for and against the rules for harvesting, using, and selling personal records of how we use the Internet. And experts working for the FCC weighed in with their informed opinions before the rule was approved last October.
Republicans in Senate and then House did the opposite this past week, voting along party lines to reverse the consumer protections. Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and other companies have long wished to leverage personal data, seeing Google and Facebook making billions from it through customized advertising revenue. Most web sites, including Bloomberg.com, track Web use in order to deliver relevant advertisements to users.
The ISP’s could not win a policy argument before the FCC, but Congress was willing to act quickly amid the flurry of big issues confronting the public in the first 100 days of the new administration.
Once President Trump signs this bill into law, as he has pledged to do as part of his assault on Obama-era regulation regardless of their value, these telecommunication companies will be able to monitor all sorts of data use and cross-reference it with a user’s location, the time of day, and even the concentration of other service users. As more commerce occurs through phones, these companies could launch payment applications that muscle out similar services from Apple or Google. That kind of consumer data is especially valuable. Then, telecommunication companies could sell ads on the locked or home screen of a phone — something even Google and Facebook can’t do.
Beyond that, Congress is also removing regulations that made telecommunication companies responsible for the leads of valuable — and possibly dangerous — private information through security breaches.
There is a weak argument that posits that by stripping these consumer protections from telecommunication companies Congress is leveling the competitive field between Verizon and Facebook. But such leveling need not occur on the backs of consumers.
A better move, and one that would have to occur in concert with careful study and public deliberation by Congress, the FCC, and the Federal Trade Commission, would further limit how companies like Facebook and Google collect, store, and use consumer-generated information. But for the next four years we are unlikely to see any of these institutions take the interests of the public seriously.
The best we can hope for out of this move is that Americans of all political persuasions move consumer protection, especially privacy, up in their list of concerns. While polls consistently show that Americans care about the issue — a Pew survey from 2015 showed that 93 percent of American adults say that being in control of who can get information about them is important — almost no one votes based on how a legislator or president protected privacy.
Already we have seen commenters on Breitbart voice anger that Congress is pandering to anti-privacy lobbyists. Concern over possible federal warrantless surveillance of Trump associates and their dealings with major figures in Russia should generate privacy concerns among Trump critics as well as supporters. And Comcast remains one of most hated companies in America, down on the list with Goldman Sachs, Koch Industries, and BP.
A popular movement for privacy protection is possible — and let’s hope it gains strength before a major privacy meltdown. But American businesses and consumers will never enjoy stability and security until Washington rediscovers respect for policymakers and policy processes. Serious people should study these issues, construct proposals that take all stakeholders into account, introduce them carefully, assess their effects, and argue honestly about the best ways forward.
Such habits remind us that we live in a country that takes the fate of its citizens seriously. I know, it seems an impossible dream. But it’s something we benefited from just a few months ago.
Vaidhyanathan is the Robertson Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia and the author of “Intellectual Property: A Very Short Introduction.”