“What the heck are you thinking?”

Capuano channels consumer-rights outrage as Congress kills internet privacy rule

“I HAVE A simple question: What the heck are you thinking? What is in your mind?” With that, a dumbfounded Rep. Michael Capuano took to the House floor on Tuesday and spoke for many as Republicans passed a measure to kill internet privacy regulations that were approved late last year.

The rules would have prevented internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon from sharing or selling data on customers’ browsing history. The measure, which was set to go into effect in December, was adopted late last year by the Federal Communications Commission while still under the control of Obama administration appointees. The Senate has already passed the repeal measure, and President Trump has said he’ll sign it.

The FCC move would have required internet service providers, or ISPs, to get customers’ permission before selling their browsing histories or data from use of mobile apps. Capuano’s passionate rant included what was probably the first House floor speech to ever zero in on underwear purchasing habits. He said he recently made a transaction online, and can’t believe that all that information will be available. “Why should you know what size I take, or the color?” asked the Somerville Democrat.

All types of data are collected by ISPs when you browse the internet or use commonplace apps on a mobile device. Everything from your search histories to your physical location and even information about your buying habits and financial status is collected by ISPs whenever you utilize the web. ISPs will be able to sell data on our interests and market preferences to advertising companies, and market research firms, and even pharmaceutical companies.

David O’Brien, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, says ISPs not only use information gathered directly from consumers, they can even draw inferences from their search queries and Internet habits to develop snapshots of a consumer’s preferences and needs. “There are companies out there that might know you, or certain things about yourself, better than you do,” he said.

ISP companies and their lobbyists argued that companies like Google and Facebook already have the ability to collect and use similar data on customers who decide to use their services, so allowing ISPs the same leeway is just leveling the field. A key difference, however, is that consumers can opt not to use Facebook and don’t need a Google account, but internet access is fast becoming a necessity for functioning in modern America. What’s more, many Americans only have access to one internet service provider, effectively making people captive to that company if they want to get online.

Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, who sits on the subcommittee on Communications and Technology, argued during the Senate debate on the measure that because of local and regional monopolies that plague the ISP industry, its companies need to be held to a different standard. Killing the privacy rule, he argued unsuccessfully, “would create an unregulated wild west where captive consumers would have no defense against abusive invasions of their privacy by their ISP.”

The GOP claims to be the party of security, personal liberty, and privacy, but Republicans in Congress appear to have lost sight of the values they campaigned on, and of the principles they laid down in their 2016 party platform. “We intend to advance policies that protect data privacy while fostering innovation and growth and ensuring the free flow of data across borders,” it reads.

The bill clearly fails to abide by the first half of their promise by giving up consumer privacy. It does deliver on the second half — to allow the free flow of data across borders — but not in a way that is beneficial to American security and liberty. Personal information will be available to be sold to bidders located around the world. Americans could potentially become the target of corporate harassment or even blackmail with the identifying personal preference information we leave behind in the cyber realm.

“If property is liberty’s other half, privacy is its guardian,” wrote noted libertarian thinker Joseph Fulda. “The right to privacy is essential to the preservation of freedom for the simplest of reasons. If no one knows what I do, when I do it, and with whom I do it, no one can possibly interfere with it. Intuitively, we understand this, as witness our drawing the curtains and pulling the window shades down when prowlers are about.”

For his part, Capuano couldn’t understand why his colleagues would be raising up the shades on their constituents.

“Why would you want to give out any of your information to a faceless corporation for the sole purpose of them selling it. Give me one good reason why Comcast should know what my mother’s medical problems are,” Capuano said, after describing the online research he recently did on a condition his mother developed. “Go out on the street, please leave Capitol Hill for five minutes, go anywhere you want. Find three people on the street that think it’s okay…. I guarantee you, you won’t find anyone in your district who wants this bill passed.”

Members of Congress who argued that Americans have nothing to fear from the scrapping of the privacy rule may soon be tested on that. Crowdfunding campaigns have raised more than $200,000 to buy the browsing histories of congressional Republicans who supported the measure.

Meet the Author

Connor Lentz is a political science, philosophy, and economics major at Northeastern University and program assistant intern at MassINC.