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MCCARTHY: Current privacy protections do not go far enough

Photo+by+Amy+Elliot-Miesel
Photo by Amy Elliot-Miesel

Photo by Amy Elliot-Miesel

Photo by Amy Elliot-Miesel

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Many people are surprised to learn that the United States doesn’t have an explicit constitutional right to privacy. Sure, the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from illegal searches and the 14th Amendment’s due process clause has been interpreted to protect privacy in specific circumstances, but these amendments are subject to varied interpretations by judges. Instead, a lot of the privacy protections we enjoy come from Congress and regulatory agencies.

One of the consequences of the recent congressional gridlock is that our current privacy laws and regulations have failed to adapt to the internet. With the average age of a member of Congress at 57 and the Senate at 61, it’s not difficult to understand why the government is slow to adapt. Last Tuesday’s vote to block a key internet privacy regulation should come as no surprise.

The measure undoes an Obama-era bill that would prohibit the sale of customers’ browsing data starting this December. Essentially, your data is no longer your data. It is a commodity owned by the people from whom you buy your internet.

Before you grab a hammer and go smash your modem, most internet service providers won’t take advantage of this any time soon. They have self-regulation in the form of legally binding privacy policy agreements with their customers. Some of these agreements even place limits on the data they’re able to collect and the information they can sell. The obvious problem is since these are self-imposed regulations, the companies can change or amend the policy almost at will.

This worry is exacerbated by the current lack of consumer choice in providers. Many Americans live in areas where there is only one company that provides internet access, so providers have little pressure to cave to consumer demand. After all, what are we going to do, stop using the internet entirely?

We can’t ignore that the vote was nearly a perfect party line split, with every single Democrat and just 15 Republicans voting against the resolution. We also shouldn’t ignore the average Republican “yes” voter received $137,908 from the telecom lobby.Even House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-4-MD), who has received $1.3 million from telecom companies in his political career, voted against the bill.

So why would Republicans, whose ideology (allegedly) supports individual liberties, vote in near lockstep unity to weaken them? I suspect they would argue that the federal government should not be involved in telling a company what they can do with information they legally own.

We need to take Europe’s lead on internet policy. Recently, the European Union enacted significant internet privacy protection, giving its member citizens the “right to be forgotten.” In essence, the statute allows citizens of the 28 member countries to request that search engines like Google delist and remove search results that reference them.

I wouldn’t hold my breath for Congress to get its act together. If you’re concerned about the safety of your data, the easiest thing you can do is pay for a good VPN.

The country desperately needs a debate on how we want to regulate the internet. Until we do, corporations and interest groups will continue to decide for us.

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