What Really Happened With Internet Privacy?

Anyone paying attention to
U. S. headlines recently heard something about internet privacy.  But what you heard probably depends on
where you heard it.  President
Trump signed a bill on Monday, Apr. 3 that used a thing called the
Congressional Review Act to reverse a pending FCC rule.  So whatever it was, the rule that was
revoked hadn’t even gone into effect yet.

If it hadn’t been shot
down, the FCC’s proposed rule would have required internet service providers
(ISPs) such as AT&T to request permission from their customers to use
certain data about what the customers do online.  Right now, ISPs don’t have to ask, but depending on the ISP,
they may not be doing much with that data anyway.  The big users of customer-generated data are social-media
outlets such as Facebook, Internet companies such as Google, and advertisers
who pay these outfits to place targeted ads using harvested customer data.  I’m sure the ISPs would like to get
into that business eventually, but the FCC rule would have blocked them.  President Trump and the Republican-dominated
Congress simply removed that stumbling block.

So for one thing, nobody
lost any internet privacy they previously had.  As to the hypothetical future, it’s anybody’s guess what the
FCC rule might have done, but clearly the ISPs were not happy about it, which
was how the rule got quashed by a corporate-friendly Congress and President.

How you feel about this
may depend on what you think about internet privacy and corporate freedom.  At this point in history, the phrase
“Internet privacy” is about as meaningful as “Trump
modesty.”  Both are in short
supply.  Most people who spend any
time at all on the web have turned from looking for electric toothbrushes
online, say, to researching the versions of ancient Mayan calendars, only to
have an ad for toothbrushes pop up in the middle of the British Museum’s
webpage.  Obviously, a combination
of “cookies” (little browser things that tell servers where your web
browser has been) and clever marketing schemes has engineered that
outcome.  All the FCC rule might have
done would have been to stop ISPs such as AT&T and Verizon from doing
similar things, at least without asking first.   And the asking could have been buried in one of those
novel-length terms-and-conditions documents that everybody must either lie
about reading before signing onto a new service, or actually read (and I don’t
know anybody who reads them).  The
only reason that the FCC could have passed the rule in the first place lies in
the historical carve-outs of which Federal agency gets to regulate what electronic
communications means.  A similar
historical fluke explains why on-the-air TV shows are not quite as raunchy as
cable shows:  the FCC gets to
regulate on-air stuff, but not cable-only stuff.

So what has been portrayed
in some circles as an epic loss of consumer protection turns out to be more of
a turf battle among giant powerful Federal agencies and giant corporations, and
the consumer just gets to watch the results from the sidelines. 

Even though the actual
effect of either the FCC ruling or its revocation by Congress and the President
might have been minimal, it’s worth asking a broader question about how
consumers—or citizens, to use a more general term—are faring with respect to
the centers of power in the U. S. 
I recently ran across a blog by a man who, back in May of 2016 before
the party conventions had selected either Presidential candidate, predicted
that Trump would not only be the Republican nominee, but that he’d win
too.  Anybody can make a lucky
guess, but this gentleman, a writer by the name of John C. Médaille, based his
prediction on the fact that ordinary Americans were enraged that their
interests have been ignored in favor of the interests of “the Rich, the
powerful, the banker, the foreigner.”  Of course, our current President belongs to at least two of
those categories himself, and Médaille was far from pleased that Trump was
probably going to win.  But he was

Powerful corporations such
as Google and Facebook are able to offer “free” services that compel
users to generate content that profits the companies.  Médaille, who believes in an obscure and mostly forgotten
system of economics called distributism, sees this sort of thing as an
injustice, which brings the matter into the scope of engineering ethics.  Because engineering, broadly speaking,
makes everything on the Internet possible, engineers who work for such
companies shouldn’t simply turn a blind eye to the applications of their code,
saying, “All they pay me to do is code.  What they do with the code isn’t my business.”  Google’s code of conduct, summed up in
the phrase “Don’t be evil,” is a masterful exercise in
question-begging, namely because at least to my knowledge, it doesn’t include a
definition of “evil.” 

And by the nature of human
relations, we can never set out a precisely-written code of conduct that a
robot could follow flawlessly, because we’re not robots.  We’re human beings, each of us a
mystical world unto ourselves, and relations among such beings cannot be
reduced to mathematical formulas. 

The kerfuffle about the
proposed FCC ruling shows that, although our current President ran as the
vindicator of the common man and woman, reality may be setting in rather faster
than anyone expected—reality being the continuation of a long-term trend of
concentration of both economic and political power in the hands of an
oligarchic few.  By the nature of
modern engineering, most engineers will end up working for medium-size to large
corporations, and therefore have a perhaps unconscious bias in favor of
policies and actions that favor such corporations. 

However, there are reasons
that millions of people in the U. S. have experienced stagnating wages,
worsening work conditions, and a lack of genuine opportunities to be a free
contributor to the common wealth. 
Instead, unless you have reached a certain educational level, your
options are nearly all of the “heads we win, tails you lose” variety,
and many men in particular have taken the easy way out of simply giving up on
work and living off the meager surpluses of welfare and compliant relatives and
girlfriends that are available. 

To reverse such trends
will take more than an internecine government flap.  It will take first, awareness of the depth and scope of the
problem, and second, a willingness to overlook differences and artificial
divisions set up by those hoping to keep the masses tranquil, and to do
something in a united way that will bring about meaningful change.  But that is a topic for another time.

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