Americans value online privacy but voters do not care when it counts

The rush by Republicans in Congress to kill still-pending Obama-era rules that would put curbs on the ability of ISPs to collect and sell our personal Internet usage data has been met with howls of protest from privacy advocates and citizens.

And the outrage is no wonder, as the idea of our browsing habits and histories being hawked to the highest bidder is an affront to any understanding of personal privacy rights.

It’s also an affront to public opinion, as a Pew Research Center Survey last year shows:

  • 93% of adults say that being in control of who can get information about them is important; 74% feel this is “very important,” while 19% say it is “somewhat important.”
  • 90% say that controlling what information is collected about them is important—65% think it is “very important” and 25% say it is “somewhat important.”

Despite such overwhelming public sentiment, Republican majorities in both the House and Senate have voted in recent days to scuttle the privacy protections authorized last October by the Federal Communications Commission, protections that were scheduled to take effect later this year. That FCC measure passed on a 3-2 party-line vote, with then-Chairman Tom Wheeler and two fellow Democratic appointees in the majority, and current Chairman Ajit Pai and fellow Republican Michael O’Reilly opposed.

President Trump is expected to sign the legislation, though if he’s looking for an opportunity to decelerate his rapidly plummeting approval ratings, he could do worse than using his veto pen here. That’s unlikely, which mean these wildly popular privacy protections were effectively killed not in recent days by Congress but on Nov. 8 of last year with the election of Trump and reaffirmation of Republican majorities in Congress, the former of which assured Republican control of the FCC.

033017blog top issues poll Pew Research Center

Nine out of 10 Americans may tell pollsters that online privacy protections are important, but a good deal of them fail to act upon that belief when they enter voting booths; it’s not top of mind for many.

What is? Take a look at the Pew Research Center chart at the left. Obviously, many of the life-and-death issues voters identify as “very important” are indeed of greater concern than corporations exploiting our web browsing histories. But “online privacy” is nowhere on the list.

Elected officials of both parties know with great certainty that this issue is a hot button for a minority of their constituents and a preference for the remainder. They also know the corporations that would prefer carte blanche to monetize our personal information are more influential and a greater source of campaign contributions than the voices clamoring for privacy protections.

FCC Chairman Pai says he opposed those protections last year because they represented the government “picking winners and losers” in that they applied to carriers and ISPs, and not the likes of Facebook and Amazon. Pai insists that the FCC “will work with the FTC to ensure that consumers’ online privacy is protected though a consistent and comprehensive framework.”

He may be sincere, but don’t hold your breath.

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Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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