The US Congress vote on rolling back the internet privacy regulation has caused quite a stir and has raised some key questions.
The regulation adopted by the Federal Communications Commission under the Obama administration let people choose how the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) used and shared their personal browsing data. For the ISPs to be able to share this information with third parties, they first needed to obtain an affirmative consent from the users.
The existing regulation was an important step to take, but it wasn’t strict enough. It is becoming increasingly frustrating to see how the internet we love and the technologies that we have been building are used for something as fundamentally wrong as spying on people and targeting them with information based on what they do online.
Yet if the existing regulations go to pieces, matters are only going to get worse. Bombarding people with targeted advertising according to their browsing habits is bad enough. What might be more harmful is using tracked private information for something far more impactful than just showing a couple of irritating ads.
It simply should not be possible for third parties to be amassing this incredible amount of private information on people and using it to commercial or other benefit. Privacy laws should be much more conservative than what the Obama administration had put in place back in 2016.
Two Steps Back
With every week we’re learning how our browsing data is being used in increasingly nefarious ways. We should be looking at significantly limiting the collection and use of private information and browsing habits. The ads we see today, based on our browsing history, are a nuisance, but the use of that same information to target us with propaganda, fake news and conspiracy theories is even worse. Instead of strengthening their resolve in safeguarding our privacy, Congress has chosen to take two steps back and undo a further level of protection.
The new decision seems counter-intuitive. Private internet history should be just that. We should be enhancing privacy, not the other way around. The ugly truth is that the user’s privacy is being taken away as part of a partisan political struggle.
When we talk about solutions, the most common one that is being suggested is a well-configured Virtual Private Network (VPN). But even with this solution there are other methods to identify a user and violate their perceived privacy.
At Vivaldi, there are things that we can do, but I believe the best solution is to regulate the use of privacy information. We aim for an open and inclusive internet that respects user privacy. We will do what we can on our side, but at the same time users should be able to use the internet and social sites as they please and not deal with targeted ads, propaganda and fake news.
Now, more than ever, it is the time to stand up for the causes that we care about. The uncomfortable truth is that until more robust privacy protections are put in place, the responsibility of protecting our data falls on us, the users. It is still not obvious how to do it if the law comes into force, although consumers can call their providers and opt out of having information shared and encourage companies to be more transparent giving them a good opportunity to implement best practices.
My hope is that the process surrounding this bill will lead to some logical decisions, and instead of weakening existing privacy laws, the government will tighten them further.
Having strict privacy laws in place should help manage two problems at the same time – improving people’s privacy online and making it much more difficult to bombard people with targeted advertising and content. With better privacy, we would take a step closer to better democracy.