Among other changes, this legislation would make it easier, and legal, for Internet service providers (ISPs) to both gather and sell personal information including Web browsing history. In other words, AT&T could, in theory, sell to the highest bidder a list of the websites you’ve visited and the frequency with which you visited them.
Many Internet users aren’t keen on the idea of companies selling their browsing data, so several independently came up with the same plan: They began crowdfunding campaigns to purchase the Web histories of the members who voted to wipe away those protections.
Misha Collins, the star of television’s “Supernatural,” started one such fundraiser that has raised more than $60,000 of its ambitious $500,000,000 goal.
“Great news! The House just voted to pass SJR34. We will finally be able to buy the browser history of all the Congresspeople who voted to sell our data and privacy without our consent!” he wrote in its description.
Adam McElhaney, who described himself as “a privacy activist & net neutrality Advocate from Chattanooga, Tn.,” began another which has raised more than $145,000, well beyond its $10,000 goal. Its description read, in part:
Help me raise money to buy the histories of those who took away your right to privacy for just thousands of dollars from telephone and ISPs. Your private data will be bought and sold to marketing companies, law enforcement.
Let’s turn the tables. Let’s buy THEIR history and make it available.
Thanks, Congress, for voting to put all of our private data up for sale! We can’t wait to buy yours. https://t.co/t8pq3p470f
— Misha Collins (@mishacollins) March 28, 2017
More than 12,000 people have donated to the two campaigns combined as of Wednesday night.
Others made similar pledges. Max Temkin, one of the designers of the popular party game Cards Against Humanity, tweeted, “If this s‑‑‑ passes I will buy the browser history of every congressman and congressional aide and publish it.”
Later, though, Temkin slightly changed his tune and promised to match up to $10,000 in donations to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy organization that seeks to protect Internet privacy. As Temkin wrote on Twitter, “People are already mad at me that we haven’t released the data. As a reminder, this bill hasn’t been signed yet and there is no data to buy.”
“If this data becomes available, Cards [Against Humanity] remains committed to buying it,” Melissa Harris, a spokeswoman for Cards Against Humanity, told The Post in an email. “Obstacles, however, remain. First among them: the President’s signature on the bill. Then, legal challenges are likely to follow. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is likely to be involved in those efforts, which is why we’re calling on people to donate to the organization. If the bill is signed and legal challenges fail, we will pursue the browsing histories to the best of our abilities.”
Both points are important. President Trump still needs to sign the bill for it to take effect.
Then there’s the question of how those who donated to these crowdfunding campaigns plan to buy the Web browsing histories of members of Congress. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible.
When asked if it would now be possible to purchase another person’s browsing history, The Washington Post’s Brian Fung wrote, “The short answer is ‘in theory, but probably not in reality.’”
“ISPs haven’t done this to date and don’t plan to because they respect the privacy of their customers,” Brian Dietz, a spokesman for NCTA — The Internet & Television Association told The Post. “Regardless of the legal status of the FCC’s broadband privacy rules, we remain committed to protecting our customers’ privacy and safeguarding their information because we value their trust.”
It’s also unlikely an ISP would sell an individual’s Web browsing history. Most of the time, companies purchasing data have no idea whose data, exactly, they’re buying. All that generally matters to these companies are a few demographics.
Which raises the question of what will happen to the $200,000 and counting gathered by these crowdsourcing campaigns.
GoFundMe, the website hosting them, previously told The Post in a statement, “in order to protect donors, if a campaign is flagged as fraudulent, the funds cannot be withdrawn until the issue is resolved.”
It’s unclear, though, what would occur if the campaign isn’t fraudulent but simply impossible to fulfill.
This post has been updated to include a statement from a spokeswoman for Cards Against Humanity.
More from Morning Mix: