Janine Jackson interviewed Evan Greer about internet privacy for the March 31, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
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The more our economy and our lives move online, the more information about us goes over our Internet Service Provider, and the more consumers want to know how to protect their personal information in the digital age.
That was former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, hardly a firebrand. His remarks last fall about online privacy were just a straightforward reflection of overwhelming public sentiment. A 2016 Pew poll found 74 percent of Americans say controlling their personal information is “very important,” with 68 percent saying current laws don’t do enough to protect it.
And the rules Wheeler was announcing meant, among other things, that internet service providers like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast would have to get opt-in consent from consumers in order to collect and sell data like medical and financial information, location, or browsing history. And they couldn’t refuse service to people who didn’t opt in.
It was with shock and dismay, therefore, that observers witnessed the houses of Congress in quick succession move to invalidate those newly approved rules before they go into effect. Why? How? What now? Our next guest is involved in this issue. Evan Greer is campaign director at the group Fight for the Future. She joins us now by phone from Boston. Welcome to CounterSpin, Evan Greer.
Evan Greer: Thanks for much for having me on.
Well, no constituent called their congressperson asking for less online privacy, that we know. So what happened here, legislatively?
As with so many things in Congress, unfortunately, you have to follow the money. The lawmakers that were pushing the hardest for this in both the House and the Senate have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the telecom industry, the Comcasts, Verizons and AT&Ts of the world, that stand to profit big from collecting and selling our personal information to advertisers. So this is a clear case where Congress decided to side, not with their constituents, but with the corporations that fund their campaigns.
And they were able to do it so seamlessly because of the use of this Congressional Review Act. What can you tell us about that?
That’s correct. So the Congressional Review Act is a legislative mechanism that basically allows Congress, without significant debate or discussion, to disapprove of rules of federal agencies, in this case the FCC, and they have a narrow window of time in which to do that. And the most frightening part about it is that once they passed this legislation, the Congressional Review Act, those rules can’t be placed back into effect by a future administration. So even if, the future FCC chairperson is, you know, someone that actually gives a crap about your internet freedom and privacy, they wouldn’t be able to reverse this ruling, because of the way the Congressional Review Act works.
So what’s most important now is that people need to be A) holding these lawmakers accountable, and making sure that they know if they try to do something like this in the future, they’re going to see a major public backlash at the polls. And then, B) I know this sounds perhaps ridiculous, but people do need to be putting pressure on President Trump, who still has an opportunity to veto this legislation. And I think we saw actually an interesting backlash from President Trump supporters who were very upset that this is happening, and kind of surprised, saying, hey, I thought you were going to drain the swamp, why are you saying that you’re going to sign this bill that the only people who like it are telecom lobbyists?
So we do actually have an opportunity, perhaps, to convince him that this issue is not going to play well with his base, and there’s maybe a chance that he could veto it, and we should certainly be pushing for that.
JJ: Well, it is a sort of strange bedfellows sort of thing, and you do look around and wonder who was for this. Of course, you’ve put your finger on it, it’s the companies themselves, really, as the only constituency that seems to have had Congress’s ear here.
And yet I’ve been disappointed in some of the media explainers, because you’d think it’d be fairly straightforward to make clear what’s at stake for people. But I’m reading a kind of “facts you need to know” from the AP, and the first question is, what does this mean to you? And the answer is, well, not so much. And then the last question is, can you stop providers from collecting your data? And the answer to that is, well, yes, but it’s not easy. Even if the facts are accurate, the tone I’m getting from media coverage is, this is bad for consumers, industry’s getting its way once again, but you know what, this is how it’s always going to be, and maybe it’s not so bad. We could use some activist spark here; it’s not over, necessarily.
That’s right. And it’s the worst straw man argument to say, oh well, these rules that would have protected you hadn’t even gone into effect yet, so therefore you shouldn’t be upset that Congress struck them down before they even had a chance to protect you.
People fought hard for these rules, particularly, because we need them, because ISPs have been caught in the act of collecting and selling their customers’ information, actively invading their customers’ privacy. AT&T was busted selling information directly to the federal government and to law enforcement agencies. So there is a real problem here. It’s already been affecting consumers, and that’s why people pressured the FCC to do something about it.
So this media narrative that this isn’t really going to change stuff for you because they were already doing this, to me just completely misses the point. That’s exactly why this is upsetting, because ISPs have been doing this, and we should have rules in place to stop them, and now we don’t.
Well, I worry in general that there’s a way that people can think about the internet as a field where you can have freedom from censorship or freedom from surveillance. If you want free expression, you have to accept harassment. So I like that Fight for the Future has a positively defined vision of what the internet could be. People think the internet’s pretty great, but it could be better, and I like the idea of putting forward an actual positive vision of something that you’re for.
That’s right. And also it’s so important for people to understand the ways that surveillance has a deeply chilling effect on freedom of speech. People don’t feel safe expressing themselves, and expressing their opinions, when they feel like the government, or giant corporations or their employer or the school that they go to, are looking over their shoulder, watching what they’re doing, and might punish them for it.
We see that in societies that have extreme levels of surveillance, including the United States. There are well-documented statistics about writers who self-censor themselves based on their fear of government surveillance. And so these things go hand in hand. We can’t have an internet with freedom of expression without also pushing for an internet where we have a basic right to privacy, security and safety.
Folks like Jeff Flake, the Republican congressperson who introduced this quashing, he talked about a “consumer-friendly” approach, and they actually put forward the rationale that it’s helpful for people to have this stuff force-fed to them, because that way they can be informed about “innovative and cost-saving product offerings.” And I just want to — the tip off for those following it, we know that this is meant to say — for poor people, this is actually very helpful for poor people. There’s something sort of especially transparent and craven about some of the rationales they use to push these things through, and we should be aware that in fact, it’s having different impacts on different communities.
That’s absolutely correct. And it’s so clear that low-income communities, communities of color, women and the LGBTQ community, basically anyone who is already marginalized in our society, stands the most to lose when we lose this privacy, and is at the highest risk. I can say for myself, as a member of the LGBTQ community, for folks in my community, privacy is not a luxury, it can be a matter of life and death. Someone could lose their job because their internet browsing history leaks, or because of something that they’re doing online. Someone could get kicked out of their home, or face violence on the street. So these are very real issues, and they become more real for you, the less power and privilege you have within our society.
And in terms of Flake’s talking point there, he’s taking it directly from the cable industry, who’ve actually tried stuff like this in the past, where they’ve allowed you to pay a little extra in order for them not to track you. And that’s just a totally ridiculous, almost dystopian future where, OK, well, sure, if you’ve got enough money to pay us, then we won’t spy on you, but the rest of you proletarians are screwed. And I don’t think that’s an internet that any of us want to be on. I don’t think that’s the world that we want to live in. It shouldn’t be a privilege to use the internet safely, it should be a basic right.
We’ve been speaking with Evan Greer from Fight for the Future. You can follow their work on this and other battles online at FightForTheFuture.org. Evan Greer, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
Thanks so much for having me on.