Whose Internet?

What’s next in the fight for control over the internet?

Your online information is officially for sale.

In early April, congressional Republicans and the Trump administration put profit over privacy by passing a bill to repeal privacy regulations on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) regarding the use of sensitive personal information.

Past regulations required ISPs, companies that provide the means for people to access the internet like Verizon and AT&T, to acquire consent before selling their personal browsing data. With this protection lifted, ISPs will have free reign to sell users’ private sensitive information to the highest bidder. It also opens the door for ISPs to charge extra fees for privacy policies that are now thought of as standard.

Now for sale: private sensitive information previously protected under online privacy rules

Profit Over Privacy

The move sends a clear message that legislators value making money for large corporations and themselves more than protecting the public’s privacy. ISPs have heavily advocated for deregulation regarding online user data through lobbying and funding congressional campaigns. Republican legislators jumped at the opportunity to bolster their standing with ISPs by passing this piece of favorable legislation. The exchange of favors allows ISPs to retain and grow their control over the internet and the information that passes through it while giving them a vested interest in keeping these lawmakers in power.

Meanwhile, virtually no one in the public wanted to lift the internet privacy protections. Internet users have been left angry and confused in the aftermath of the bill’s passing. Regional ISP monopolies already limit the options people have when choosing how to connect to the internet. Now, people will not have a choice of which ISPs to give their dollars AND personal online information in exchange for internet access. How could the US government make a decision that so clearly benefits only those at the top of the internet food chain?

What’s Next? Net Neutrality

The Trump administration has stated that the next step in their plan is to do away with net neutrality. Net neutrality is the idea that everyone should have equal access to any site on the internet. Throwing out net neutrality would mean that ISPs would be able to control the connection speed or access to certain sites at their discretion.

ISPs could put monetary barriers in front of sites, requiring them to pay extra for fast connection speeds. They could block sites whose views and opinions they, their friends in government, and their investors want to silence. At a time when issues around fake news and alternative facts are magnified, ISPs and their stakeholders would hold the keys to access to information, surveillance of the public, and ability to shape public perception.

An Internet for the People

The internet is touted as a bastion of free speech and open exchange of ideas and information; a democratic platform to be guided along a just path by the people. But as with any piece of technology, the internet is subject to manipulation by systems of power and the current corporate reality. It is increasingly becoming a tool to turn profits at the expense of privacy.

There are steps that internet users can take to protect their private data, such as encryption and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). There are also groups that are imagining and working towards a better internet. As ISPs and lawmakers grab more control over the internet under the Trump administration, however, the situation is clear. If we want the internet is to be a democratic and accessible space, then we are going to have to fight for it.

Linus Kuo is a researcher, aspiring educator, gamer, and an on again, off again cellist.