By Marshall Lymburn | Contributing Writer

Late last month, the House and Senate, backed by President Trump, decided to repeal an Obama-era piece of legislation that would have prevented Internet Service Providers (ISP) from selling your online data. This piece of legislation allows companies like Comcast and AT&T to continue marketing your online data in pursuit of targeted advertising. 

The now repealed bill, passed by the Federal Communications Commission in 2016, would have required ISP’s to seek consumer permission before using their information. It would have come into effect this year, and yet its repeal has passed quietly. Any noise around it seems to have focused on the Trump Administration’s continued loyalty to corporate allies rather than his promised populist principles. However, the problem is that the ramifications of online privacy seem abstract to the average internet surfer. 

The silence or general apathy around the repeal of this bill may have to do with our sense of the internet as a kind of wild west in the 21st century. The internet still feels infinite and often intangible even though we have built our lives around it for the better part of the past two decades. We do not step into it with complete naivete. Anyone who has been hacked or suffered a simple computer virus is aware of the complex forces beyond their control in cyberspace. Because of this, few people really go online without some suspicion that somebody somewhere, could see what they have been doing. By that reasoning, if we live with the sense that our information is already compromised, who cares if now we simply know who has it? Who cares if it is being catalogued and sold?

We all should care. Just because the tracking and selling of your information does not feel like theft or intrusion, it does not mean there will not be repercussions from our lack of internet privacy. Here is something we’ve all had happen in our online ventures: Say you go online to look for a new pair of headphones. You find the pair you are looking for and purchase them. Then, for the next few days, the margins of the websites you visit are filled with advertisements for headphones. Your ISP has catalogued your information and allowed advertisers to market what they think you want. Companies like Facebook and Google have been doing this with news and advertising for years.

All ISPs do this. And while this might not feel like “spying” if you have nothing to hide, the repercussions of being marketed this “micro” environment of your own wants — and more importantly, your beliefs — has created distortion and polarity. Say you were not looking for headphones, but rather The Young Turks — you can expect leftist progressive news to start showing up in your feed. Search Breibart? Brace yourself for a flurry of alt-right articles. 

More and more of our worldview is being constructed by what we see on the internet, as we spend more time online. Indeed, the internet has not just influenced a subset of our worldview, but is rapidly becoming a main architect of its construction. 

Perhaps you are aware of targeted advertising as you browse the internet. It is often blatant. But simple awareness of it may not be enough. We are often complicit in mentioning an article having only seen its title on our newsfeed. How do we really know the facts? We see a headline in our news feed, mention it to a friend, and move on without ever fact checking it. I recall talking to a friend last year about a (now well known) quote I saw from President Trump stating that if he were to run for president he would run Republican because of their stupidity. The quote, as we now know, was a classic piece of fake news. 

More insidiously, this micro world is natural. It makes our browsing experience comfortable and easy at the cost of facing what can seem like irrelevant or irreconcilable views. Our impulse at times of polarity and distress tells us to run to what is safe, not to confront difficult realities. But petty economic pretenses have made our internet browsing experience an increasingly closed loop of our own ideas, and a bill that would have helped us beat back some of our biases is now out the window.

So what do we do? Internet privacy advocates would tell you to use a Tor browser or purchase a VPN for your IP address. Or, like myself, you could try to spend as little time as possible online, though I could hardly advocate this confidently in the face of our investments towards a digital life. Approach with caution. This is not just about corporate greed or a President with an agenda. It is about the awareness and discipline to push through the easy comforts of our own reality and engage with the greater uncomfortable truths of our world.

This article has 1 comment

  1. Cynthia Williams

    Brilliant article and very timely! Thank you!

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