From one perspective, no immediate change occurred when the House and Senate voted recently to disapprove internet privacy protections adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in the final days of the Obama administration. Those regulations had been announced but had not yet gone into effect. Congress’s rejection of the rules merely leaves the existing policy as it was, with internet service providers free to collect and share data about their customers’ internet browsing patterns without first obtaining their specific consent. Yet this shift, along with the declared intention of the F.C.C.’s new chair, Ajit Pai, to roll back net neutrality regulations, indicates a new balance being struck between the costs that regulations impose on telecommunications companies and the benefits they secure for the public.
Proponents of repealing the privacy regulations argued that because they applied only to internet service providers and not to companies like Facebook and Google, they were an unwarranted governmental intrusion into a competitive marketplace.
Yet it is telling that the only remedy considered by Congress was to eliminate the privacy requirements for one class of corporations rather than to extend them to cover others as well. Arguably, Facebook and Google’s collection of data, across multiples devices rather than limited to a single internet connection, is far more extensive and intrusive.
There are important reasons to be concerned about the burdens that regulation imposes on competition, but there are also important reasons to be concerned about the effect of the unrestrained collection, sharing and sale of internet usage data on the way citizens—not just “consumers”—use and trust the internet.
Although its connections, sites and services are maintained by profit-oriented companies, the internet is a medium for every form of communication, whether commercial, civic or personal. Internet regulation needs to serve the common good, not only the maintenance of profit margins. Expectations of privacy on the internet are a significant component of that common good because they allow people to more easily communicate with and understand each other without first having to evaluate how every click will affect a consumer profile. The recently repealed privacy regulations were far from perfect, but that is an argument for improving them rather than abandoning them. Not all aspects of the common good can be secured by competition.