Internet privacy has a new best friend, and it’s the last person you’d expect.
US Representative Marsha Blackburn, Republican chairman of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, helped overturn regulations from the Obama administration that required Internet providers such as Comcast Corp. to get their customers’ permission before tracking their online activities. Did those $87,000 in donations Blackburn received from telecommunications companies in the last election cycle have anything to do with that?
Maybe not. Suddenly, a lot of telecom lobbyists might want a refund.
Just a few weeks after Congress repealed the Obama regulations, Blackburn and two other Republicans filed the Browser Act of 2017. The name is an acronym too silly to explain, but the goal is eminently sensible. Basically, it would mimic the regulations Blackburn successfully quashed, but go a good deal further, by requiring Google, Facebook, and other online services to also get our permission.
The regulations Blackburn opposed were enacted by the Federal Communications Commission, which does not oversee online services because they aren’t telecom companies. Google’s broadband business would have come under the FCC requirement, but its vast Internet advertising machine could keep right on tracking our every online move.
Eliminating the FCC rules caused a ferocious backlash that may go a long way toward explaining Blackburn’s change of heart. Her bill would restore the regulations through the Federal Trade Commission, which also holds jurisdiction over online companies. And this time, the standards would apply to network operators and online businesses alike. If Google or Facebook or Comcast wanted to monitor your Web-surfing habits, they would have to ask permission first.
Her basic argument is that the previous rules were unfair because they singled out only some of the companies we use to travel the Internet.
“The government should not pick winners and losers when it comes to the privacy of Americans,” Blackburn said. “This bill creates a level and fair privacy playing field by bringing all entities that collect and sell the personal data of individuals under the same rules.”
Right now, online companies track us whether we agree to it or not. Getting our permission would be likely to hamper their ability to personalize ads, making them more generic and less precise — and much less profitable. But people who treasure their privacy will rest a a little easier.
Public Knowledge, an Internet activist group which denounced Congress for abandoning the FCC rules, has praised the Blackburn bill.
Not so Blackburn’s erstwhile fans. “In its current form the Browser Act is not the solution,” said Evan Swarztrauber, a spokesman for TechFreedom, a think tank funded in part by broadband carriers. Swarztrauber said the bill is full of ambiguous, unclear details that could discourage entrepreneurial innovation.
The Internet Association, a trade group that represents Facebook, Google, and other online giants, isn’t happy, either. “This bill has the potential to upend the consumer experience online and stifle innovation,” said Noah Theran, the association’s vice president.
Sure enough, Blackburn’s bill could cripple Google’s latest innovation in advertising: a way to track our shopping habits even when we’re not online.
In May, Google announced relationships with companies that process about 70 percent of all credit and debit card transactions in US brick-and-mortar stores. If you see a Google ad and then go to a Walmart to purchase the item, the payment processor will let Google know about your transaction.
That gives Google evidence that its ads work, so it can charge more for them.
What’s wrong with that?
Why should Google know what you buy at Walmart or Target or any other physical store?
The whole reason this stuff is so creepy is that Google keeps aggregating more information about everything you do. First, it was what you do when you’re on Google. Then it became the Internet sites you visit when you leave Google. Then came Android, which lets Google follow you wherever you go. Now comes this new service that lets Google detect the stuff you buy at the corner store.
Where next? The bathroom?
Google insists the data it receives from the offline tracking service is anonymized, and so doesn’t pose a threat to your privacy. But it still unsettles Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union.
“This is another step toward comprehensive commercial surveillance of individuals,” Stanley said, “and if it becomes normalized, there’s no telling how long those privacy protections will remain in place.”
For now, the only protection we’ve got is Google’s promise to do right. I’d like a little more than that.
I picked on Europe recently for trying to impose their Internet laws on the United States. Time to kiss and make up. I like a European Union plan, unveiled in January, that would require Web browsers to ask users if they accept tracking cookies like those used by Google and Facebook to monitor us. Unless the user explicitly agrees, such cookies would be forever blocked.
Blackburn’s Browser Act is based on the same general principle. Want Yahoo and Amazon and Comcast to track you? Let them know. If not, they’ll have to leave you alone.
Yes, there’s a downside: The drop in advertising revenues could do financial harm to smaller Internet services, maybe even to news sites like BostonGlobe.com.
But our privacy is worth something too; we ought to keep at least a little of it. Blackburn’s bill offers us a fighting chance.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.