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Internet privacy and the information-industrial complex

Congress’ erosion of privacy rights has disturbing implications

Oscar Zahner, Political Correspondent
Originally published May 3, 2017

Emma DeRubertis

Emma DeRubertis

Senate Joint Resolution 34 passed in silence, a break in character for a president who usually signs legislation with flourish and fanfare. Only days later, that news story would be drowned out by other, more exciting headlines: the U.S. bombing of a Syrian airbase, for instance, or the confirmation of the hyperconservatvie Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. But behind the smokescreen of Trump’s spectacular media circus, shrouded by a climate of public apathy, a new institution is being birthed from the gangrenous influence of dark money in American politics: the information-industrial complex.

The bill, which repealed the implication of FCC regulations preventing internet service providers from obtaining the internet histories of their users without prior consent, is a significant rebuke to online privacy. In short, it grants your ISP access to your internet search history in order to sell your information to advertisers on the open market. And with a Gallup poll indicating that nearly half of regular internet users pay “little or no attention” to internet privacy and only 16 percent pay “very close attention,” public consent seemed like an afterthought. An afterthought dwarfed by the monumental specter of campaign contributions.

The Verge reports that the telecom industry spent nearly $10,000,000 in campaign contributions on politicians who voted for the bill in the most recent election cycle. Of course, with their users’ information as a brand new source of revenue, that seems like chump change.

The bill was passed in a palpably sleazy cocktail of public unawareness and corporate interests, but the precedent it has set for the future of technology is even more harrowing. Corporations have already begun the process of lobbying to undermine what little privacy protections exist for the internet, and now have succeeded getting legislation that supports this goal past the president’s desk. As private industry erodes the standard for privacy, the precedent is set for the government to create an invasive system of surveillance based on your online information.

The end result is a potential scenario in which government surveillance programs would rely on private industry for your information. This cooperation between government and the massive industry would render your information a commodity; it would render your privacy non-existent.

For now, the most obvious question is: “what can I do to protect my privacy?”

“As private industry erodes the standard for privacy, the precedent is set for the government to create an invasive system of surveillance based on your online information.”

Unfortunately, options are dishearteningly limited. One of the most easily discernible solutions, switching to an ISP that won’t sell your internet history, is rendered crushingly difficult by the death grip in which a few massive corporations hold the industry.

Additionally, ISPs have a nasty history of obfuscating their intentions with your privacy, meaning that choosing a responsible provider is nearly impossible.

Another, more promising solution is downloading a virtual private network, commonly known as a VPN. Most students at Ballard are familiar with VPNs, which help combat restrictions in the school WiFi. VPNs are able to do this by routing all your traffic through their server, meaning, among other things, your ISP will not have access to your search history. However, your VPN does have access to this information. This solution, in effect, only moves the source of the problem.

One may be inclined to trust a VPN over the cutthroat capitalism of an ISP provider, especially given the fact that privacy regulations for ISPs have been lifted. But it’s important to keep in mind that VPNs are equally unregulated and unpredictable, and are often subjected to less scrutiny than large corporations.

For now, however, VPN companies don’t threaten to create an information-industrial complex in the same way that ISPs do. VPNs are comparatively small companies that don’t have the same political clout as the telecommunications industry. As such, their influence in government is practically non-existent, which undermines their potential to become a significant factor in the complex.

Additionally, some VPN providers vehemently opposed the bill that ISPs were so warm towards. Private Internet Access, the most notable example of this opposition, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to condemn the 50 senators who took contributions from telecommunications lobbies and voted for the bill.

While it may appear more socially conscious to use a VPN, it won’t change the fact that your information is available for purchase. It only changes the source that’s selling your information. And VPNs aren’t a particularly well-known service, meaning that they’re unlikely to challenge the invasive power of ISPs.

Downloading a VPN might make you feel safer, but the reality is that there is no easy fix for this problem. As long as the issue continues to slip under the radar of the public, and as long as our government is broken enough to support the corruption of an information-industrial complex, privacy will not be treated as a right. And the most recent consequence of this corruption has reared its head: your internet history is now on the open market.

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Internet privacy and the information-industrial complex