Imagine if a day after calling the washing machine repairman, a salesman, tipped off by your phone company, showed up at your door, wondering if you’d like to buy a new one. Most people would consider that an egregious violation of privacy.

But the same thing happens online millions of times a day — in fact, it is the backbone of the internet, generating billions of dollars for companies like Facebook and Google. Does anyone really care? Has the internet changed our very concept of privacy? Republicans are about to find out.

The U.S. House this week voted largely along party lines to allow internet service providers like AT&T and Verizon to collect and sell the information generated by their customers, following a similar vote in the Senate. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill into law.

The action, which repealed a set of protections created by the Federal Communications Commission under the Obama administration, will allow browsing history, location data, app usage and other online activity to be curated into an individual profile and used to target advertising directly at a consumer, all without the consumer’s consent.

Websites like Facebook and Google, which fall under a different regulatory framework, have been doing this for years, making sure that when you search for a ski jacket online, you’re inundated with ads for L.L. Bean and The North Face.

Online advertising is an $83 billion a year business, and it is growing. Internet service providers are in a unique position to capitalize on it, if only they can get people to go along.


Unlike Google, Facebook, and their affiliated sites, which internet users can avoid with a little inconvenience, internet service providers are a requirement to access the internet, and in most markets they hold a monopoly or near-monopoly. Consumers can’t just switch if they don’t like how their ISP is handling their personal information.

And ISPs have access not only to your searches and Facebook likes, but every site you visit, every physical location you go to, and every app you use. That information is enough to create a strong profile, and advertisers want it.

Consumers are unlikely to give it up, however, if ISPs have to get their explicit consent. The big telecommunication companies know this, and they lobbied Congress hard to repeal the Obama-era rules, which had yet to go into effect.

Opponents of the rules, like Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, say they put ISPs at a disadvantage against websites that can sell personal information. But that doesn’t explain why Republicans want to withdraw the protections, not extend them to other parts of the internet.

No, this is about providing the giants in the telecommunications industry a new market. AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and others are hoping that consumers won’t search for the “opt-out” option, hidden deep in their preferences, or move en masse toward services that encrypt their online actions or turn off tracking. They hope there isn’t a call for more local providers that put consumers before profit.

Republicans hope that this will pass unnoticed, that there is so much else to worry about in the Trump administration that this won’t even be acknowledged.

But most of all, they hope that as more and more of our lives are conducted online, the line between public and private becomes blurred so much that it doesn’t matter. Judging from how differently we treat the telephone and the internet, they may be right.

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