With the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act in tatters and President Trump’s approval ratings in the 30s, Democrats are feeling pretty good about their ability to limit the damage Republicans are able to do. But another unfolding story demonstrates that the dangers of unified GOP rule come from many different directions, and dramatic change can happen almost before you realize it.
If you don’t closely follow issues around technology and communication policy, you probably didn’t see this one coming, but Republicans in Congress just passed a bill allowing your Internet service provider to sell your browsing history without your consent:
In a party-line vote, House Republicans freed Internet service providers such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast of protections approved just last year that had sought to limit what companies could do with information such as customer browsing habits, app usage history, location data and Social Security numbers. The rules also had required providers to strengthen safeguards for customer data against hackers and thieves.
The Senate has voted to nullify those measures, which were set to take effect at the end of this year. If Trump signs the legislation as expected, providers will be able to monitor their customers’ behavior online and, without their permission, use their personal and financial information to sell highly targeted ads — making them rivals to Google and Facebook in the $83 billion online advertising market.
Welcome to the world the Republicans envision, where even after you turn on “incognito” mode and do some private Internet exploration about an embarrassing problem, before you know it there are fliers turning up in your mailbox saying “HELP FOR YOUR GENITAL WARTS IS HERE!!!”
The bill passed the Senate, 50-48, with every Democrat voting against it and every Republican present voting for it (two Republicans did not vote). The result in the House was almost as divided: All 190 Democrats present voted against it along with just 15 Republican defectors, while the other 215 Republicans voted in favor.
I’ve been unable to find any polling data on this question, but if you could get 5 percent of Americans to say they want their ISPs to sell their browsing history without their consent, I’d be shocked. So how does something like this happen?
The simple answer is lobbying. A set of powerful corporations would love to be able to sell your information, so they invested heavily in lobbying Congress to get it done. But it’s not just about the Washington swamp; it’s also about the philosophical differences between the two parties.
Democrats put a premium on protecting consumers, and Republicans are much more interested in maintaining and expanding the prerogatives of corporations. Indeed, if you’re looking for the Republicans’ public-spirited argument in favor of this bill, you’ll find it hard to discern. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) is quoted in that article saying that privacy “will be enhanced by removing the uncertainty and confusion these rules will create,” which makes no sense at all, while the ISPs themselves tout all the benefits targeted ads will have for their customers.
Making this all worse, the bill was passed using a heretofore obscure law called the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to not only nullify recently written regulations but also forbid the agency in question (in this case, the Federal Communications Commission) from ever writing similar rules again. Since the rule guaranteeing your privacy was written at the end of the Obama administration, Republicans are taking the opportunity to undo it. In the 20 years after the CRA itself was passed, it had been used to undo a regulation exactly once. But this year, congressional Republicans have already passed 11 CRA bills to nullify Obama regulations on things such as guns, the environment and worker protections, and there are more on the way.
If you’re like most people, you think the bill allowing your ISP to sell your information without your consent is outrageous, but it may not be enough in and of itself to get you to call your member of Congress. Not only that, the bill has already passed. And by the time the next election rolls around, you may have forgotten about it.
Have no doubt: That’s the whole idea. All the Republicans who voted for this had no illusions that it would be a popular thing to do. But they figured that with everything else going on, most people wouldn’t notice. And they’re probably right.
We’re going to be seeing this a lot in the next four years. You’ll come across an article telling you about some appalling bill that just passed Congress, and you’ll say, “Wait — they did what?” It’ll be the first you’ve heard of it, and maybe the last as well. Republicans may suffer more high-profile losses on sweeping legislation that gets debated for weeks or months, but meanwhile they’ll be racking up one victory after another on smaller items, many of them giveaways to corporate interests, such as the Internet privacy bill.
Is there anything you can do about this? Sure. Even though the bill has passed, it isn’t too late to tell your member of Congress how you feel about it (and if that member is a Republican, you might ask them whether they’d like to share their own browsing history with their constituents, since they think your private information ought to be bought and sold). Even if that doesn’t stop this bill from becoming law, it would show your representative that they’re being watched, and perhaps make them a little less willing to do the same sort of thing in the future.
Raising a stink about this bill might also make it possible that President Trump could veto it, even though the White House has already issue a statement in support of it. Trump’s opinions are always subject to change, and if he became convinced that this was incredibly unpopular, you never know what he might do.
Even if that doesn’t happen, this is a valuable lesson: Republicans in Congress may have suffered a huge defeat on ACA repeal, but they’re still going to be working like busy little bees, and we can’t take our eyes off them for a moment.