We here at StrongerNC are big fans of privacy. Not because we have anything to hide (or because we think you have anything to hide), but because freedom of speech and association are dependent on privacy.

Look at it this way. Do you have curtains? Or do you walk around naked in front of your backlit windows? How do you feel about someone shoulder surfing you while you Google what you’re thinking? (e.g., “What to do if you hate your mother-in-law”).

What does this have to do with a progressive North Carolinian advocacy group? Check out the GOP roll back of Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) privacy protectionsThe U.S. House of Representatives voted last Tuesday to repeal FCC rules adopted last year that require broadband providers, also called internet service providers (ISPs), to obtain consumer consent before collecting individual’s data to use in advertising or marketing. The Senate also voted to reverse the rules.

You know what this looks like. You’ve seen the check boxes where you opt-in or opt-out to certain types of ads. You’ve also probably searched for “little black dress” only to have J. Crew and Banana Republic ads stalk you around the internet for days afterward. 

When POTUS, as is widely expected, signs this legislation, what does it mean for you? Not as much as it might seem at first blush. This is because of differences in the rules that apply to internet content (think Google and Facebook) and those that apply to communications “hardware”–like ISPs and your telephone. The FCC, which regulates ISPs, has more restrictive privacy regulations than the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) which regulates online content. These ISPs argued successfully that this puts them at an unfair advantage when it comes to behavioral advertising. The argument is this: If Google can stalk you with ads for a little black dress, we ISPs want to do it to!

The recently passed legislation is a win for ISPs and a loss for individual privacy advocates. ISPs collect huge amounts of data on the websites people visit, including medical, financial and other personal information. This information will now be fair game for commercial dissemination.

Will you notice it? Probably not. Can you do anything about it? Yes. On the technical side, you can use a Virtual Private Network (“VPN”) to create a private “tunnel” that shields your information from your ISP.  Most business networks use VPNs to enable telecommuting. Most home users do not.

On the political advocacy front you can support candidates who value personal privacy. The right of individuals to selectively disclose facts about themselves is central to the exercise of fundamental democratic rights—think about how we avoid political discussions in the workplace because of the emotional responses our coworkers may have to this information. There is a slippery slope between commercial surveillance and government surveillance. Remember, anything gathered in the marketplace is subject to government subpoena. One need only look to history to see governments gathering this type of information to quell dissent.