Commodifying data threatens consumer privacy

Published April 18, 2017, 2:01 p.m. - 63 views


Last week, Congress passed legislation that allows internet service providers – like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T – to sell their consumers’ private information to marketers and other companies without the consent of their users. 
This legislation is a direct response to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) passing of internet privacy regulations in October 2016. These regulations not only protected users’ internet browsing history, but also the content of their messages and emails, financial information and Social Security numbers. These rules would also have required internet providers to inform consumers of the data they collect and tell users when information breaches take place. This seems only reasonable, considering that internet access is something most people pay for and is necessary in order to complete certain practical tasks, like monitoring their bank accounts, working remotely, filling out FAFSA forms and storing other sensitive and vital information. 
Despite the perks of this protection, the newest legislation passed by Congress will wipe away these breakthrough privacy measures for internet users. These regulations were supposed to take effect this year, but President Donald Trump made sure that wouldn’t happen by signing Congress’s anti-privacy measures. Now internet users will be subject to the interests of advertising companies and enterprises that may have access to their private and sensitive information as well as the content of their messages, giving them a potentially dangerous amount of insight into their users’ internet usage. Now, location data, Social Security numbers, browsing history, financial information, health information and app usage history can be sold by internet providers to the highest bidder. This blatant disregard for the safety and privacy of Americans’ information is not the worst thing about this legislation. Apparently, it also bars the FCC from making any kind of protective rules in the future.
The supporters of this legislation claim that it will allow providers to use relevant ads for consumers based on collected data. On the other hand, what do most people prioritize? Having relevant advertisements pop up on their news feeds or the protection of their bank accounts and health information? Some critics of the legislation fear that this gives internet providers a clever way to charge their users premiums if they want to keep their information private. Once again, the Trump administration has passed legislation that segregates people based on socioeconomic status. Wealthy Americans can handle the extra charges, even if they are outrageous. 
When Trump signed the bill he did not have reporters there to take pictures and was not surrounded by his favorite politicians, as is his usual style. It seems he may have anticipated that this ruling would not be a popular one. He didn’t even tweet about it. In fact, the outrage over the decision has been spotty – except for in the state of Minnesota. Shortly after Trump passed the law, the Minnesota Senate voted on a proposed amendment that would require internet providers to obtain written consent before selling consumers’ private and personal information. Senator Ron Lats, DFL-St. Louis Park, was the main proponent of the amendment. After passing it through committee, the amendment was passed by a vote of 66-1. 
Other states would be wise to follow Minnesota’s lead, considering that Trump’s new legislation would break down and destabilize the data connections that help run hospitals and banks as well as higher education institutions, posing a serious ethical problem. In a time when most of the world relies on data connections and technology to communicate, it’s not reasonable to pass a law that pushes internet security to the wayside in favor of capitalist gain. Yet, corporate power is becoming a theme of this presidency, and no one should be particularly surprised.


Danielle Sovereign ’18 (sovere1@stolaf.edu) is from South Chicago Heights, Ill. She majors in English and French.

About the Author

Danielle Sovereign, class of 2018 is a English major.

sovere1@stolaf.edu

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