Data Privacy in the Age of Trump

In my last post, I speculated what a Trump presidency might mean to data privacy. I mentioned his pro-business stance as a possible check to Trump’s authoritarian populism, but ended with a cautionary note about the damaging effects of unfettered government intelligence on civil liberties. We are now well into Trump’s first 100 days. While mainstream media has focused on fact-checking Trump’s tweets and covering his missteps with the travel bans and healthcare, his administration has been busy rolling back legislation that protects consumer data. In this post, I’ll look at some of the changes the Trump administration is making when it comes to data privacy.

Big Brother is coming to an Internet café near you

Reeling from internal divisions that prevented a repeal and replace of Obamacare, Republicans are looking for a chance to flex their legislative muscles. A rollback of regulations limiting data collection by the telecommunications industry may fit the bill. Last week, the Senate approved a repeal of Obama-era FCC regulations limiting the ability of broadband providers to collect personal data. The House is expected to approve the rollback this week.

For those concerned about the prospect of big business accessing personal data, state legislatures provide a sliver of hope in a data privacy landscape darkened by deregulation.  Illinois is leading the vanguard, with three bills that would give citizens privacy rights equivalent to those enjoyed by EU members. The legislation includes a right-to-know bill that would allow consumers to request information on the types of data social media companies like Google and Facebook collect on them and which businesses have access to that information. Other bills include one limiting the use of microphones on internet-connected devices and another regulating the circumstances under which a company can track consumer locations using smartphone applications. Should the legislation pass, it may serve as a model for other states concerned about data privacy in the age of Trump.

Numerous other states are also considering bills or have already passed bills that limit how and when the government can monitor Internet use by private citizens. California and Connecticut have both updated regulations restricting government access to online communications, including email, with an equivalent bill under consideration in New Mexico. Two other states—Nebraska and West Virginia—have passed legislation limiting how employers can monitor social media accounts. Hawaii and Missouri are considering similar legislation.

No more net neutrality?

The new FCC chairman Ajit Rai has been busy since taking office last January. In addition to dismantling Obama-era limits on data collection, Rai has championed a rollback of regulations prohibiting “zero-rating” exceptions to limits on data caps. Advocates of Internet freedom see this development as a threat to more far-reaching rules protecting net neutrality. For those who missed the ongoing controversy of the last few years, net neutrality prevents Internet broadband providers from establishing “fast lanes” for preferred customers and slow lanes for everybody else, including the Average Joe surfing the Internet. During the Obama years, consumers joined privacy advocates over fears that preferential treatment would limit their ability to stream video and gaming content and successfully championed rules to preserve net neutrality.

Now, Rai has pulled the FCC’s investigation into the practice of zero rating, in which telecommunications companies exploit loopholes in data cap limits to offer certain types of streaming content. Consumer advocates fear closure of the investigation signals a larger repeal of net neutrality rules in the months to come. The FCC has responded to such criticism by arguing that consumers will be the winners, giving them access to more data-free offerings like DirecTV streaming via ATTNow on mobile devices that don’t count against data caps.

What does it all mean?

Almost 70 days in to Trump’s presidency, pundits have some meaty data to chew on when assessing the administration’s impact on data privacy.  Far from acting as check on his authoritarian impulses, Trump’s pro-business support for deregulation is augmenting an attempt to expand executive power. While Trump’s maneuvers justifiably invoke charges of fascism, defenders of civil liberties can take heart in the numerous setbacks to Trump’s authoritarian ambitions. First the judiciary dealt a blow—not once, but twice—to his travel ban. Then the legislative branch put a stop to Trump’s campaign promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Now federalism, the very principle Republicans use to justify a rollback of federal regulations, is being used to implement protections for data privacy at the state level. If Trump’s presidency has accomplished nothing else, it is providing a powerful lesson in civics by showing us our Constitutional system of checks and balances in action.

Sources:

Kang, Cecilia. (February 5, 2017). Trump’s F.C.C. Pick Quickly Targets Net Neutrality Rules. New York Times. Accessed on February 9, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/05/technology/trumps-fcc-quickly-targets-net-neutrality-rules.html?_r=0

Dougherty, Connor. (March 2, 2017). Push for Internet Privacy Rules Moves to Statehouses. New York Times. Accessed on March 27, 2017.

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