Clarifying events in politics are often healthy even when they produce awful outcomes. Such is the case with yesterday’s vote by House Republicans to free internet service providers (ISPs) – primarily AT&T, Comcast and Verizon – from the Obama-era FCC regulations barring them from storing and selling their users’ browsing histories without their consent. The vote followed an identical one last week in the Senate exclusively along party lines.
It’s hard to overstate what a blow to individual privacy this is. Unlike Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google – which can track and sell only those activities of yours which you engage in while using their specific service – ISPs can track everything you do online. “These companies carry all of your Internet traffic and can examine each packet in detail to build up a profile on you,” explained two experts from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Worse, it is not particularly difficult to avoid using specific services (such as Facebook) that are known to undermine privacy, but consumers often have very few choices for ISPs; it’s a virtual monopoly.
It’s hardly rare for the U.S. Congress to enact measures gutting online privacy: indeed, the last two decades have ushered in a legislative scheme that implements a virtually ubiquitous Surveillance State composed of both public intelligence and military agencies along with their private-sector “partners.” Members of Congress voting for these pro-surveillance measures invariably offer the pretext that they are acting for the benefit of American citizens – whose privacy they are gutting – by Keeping Them Safe™.
But what distinguishes this latest vote is that this pretext is unavailable. Nobody can claim with a straight face that allowing AT&T and Comcast to sell their users’ browser histories has any relationship to national security. Indeed, there’s no minimally persuasive rationale that can be concocted for this vote. It manifestly has only one purpose: maximizing the commercial interests of these telecom giants at the expense of ordinary citizens. It’s so blatant here that it cannot even be disguised.
That’s why, despite its devastating harm for individual privacy, there is a beneficial aspect to this episode. It illustrates – for those who haven’t yet realized it – who actually dominates Congress and owns its members: the corporate donor class.
There is literally no constituency in favor of this bill other than these telecom giants. It’d be surprising if even a single voter who cast their ballot for Trump or a GOP Congress even thought about, let alone favored, rescission of privacy-protecting rules for ISPs. So blatant is the corporate-donor servitude here that there’s no pretext even available for pretending this benefits ordinary citizens. It’s a bill written exclusively by and for a small number of corporate giants exclusively for their commercial benefit at the expense of everyone else.
Right-wing outlets like Breitbart tried hard to sell the bill to their readers. But the only rationale they could provide was that it’s intended to “undo duplicitous regulation around consumer privacy,” which, they suggested, was unfair to telecoms that faced harsher regulations than social media companies. To justify this, Breitbart quoted a GOP Congresswoman, Martha Blackburn, as claiming that the regulation is “unnecessary and just another example of big government overreach.” When the Senate GOP voted last week to undo the restriction, Texas Sen. John Cornyn invoked the right-wing cliché that it “hurt job creators and stifle economic growth.”
But the inane idea that individuals should lose all online privacy protections in the name of regulatory consistency or maximizing corporate profits is something that is almost impossible to sell even to the most loyal ideologues. As Matt Stoller noted, there was “lots of anger in the comments section of Breitbart against the GOP for revoking the Obama privacy regs for ISPs.”
Stoller added that the resentment among even Breitbart readers over the vote was based on a relatively sophisticated understanding that the GOP Congress was subordinating the privacy rights of individuals to the corporate profits of Comcast, along with reinforcing monopoly power for what are really public utilities; as Stoller put it: “it’s fascinating, when the political debates are about the use of concentrated business power, the debates are no longer as partisan.”
This recognition – of who owns and controls Congress – is absolutely fundamental to understanding any U.S. political issue. And it does – or at least should – transcend both partisan and ideological allegiance because it prevails in both parties.
I still recall very vividly when I attended the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. It was just months after the Democratic Congress (with ample help from the Bush White House and GOP members) spearheaded a truly corrupt bill to vest the telecom industry with retroactive immunity for having broken the law in allowing the NSA to access their American customers’ calls and records without the warrants required by law (that was the 2008 bill which Obama, when seeking the Democratic nomination, vowed to filibuster, only to then flagrantly violate his promise by voting against a filibuster and for the bill itself once he had the nomination secured).
The first thing one noticed upon arriving on the DNC grounds was the AT&T logo everywhere: they were a major sponsor of the convention, with everything from huge signs to tote bags for the delegates carrying their logo.
The apex of this flagrant corruption was when AT&T threw a lavish party for the party centrists who helped pass the bill – entitled “AT&T thanks the Blue Dogs” – which both Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman and I attended in the totally futile attempt to interview the hordes of Democratic lobbyists, delegates and corporate donors who toasted one another:
Like most people, I had known on a rational level for quite some time that corporate donors dictate what happens in Congress – that they literally write the laws – regardless of the outcome of elections. But watching that stream of corporate and political power slink in to that venue and congregate together in such blatant corruption, and the secrecy surrounding it, really underscored the reality of this all on a visceral level. That’s the permanent power faction of Washington and they try hard, with great success, to make themselves impenetrable to outside influences – such as democracy, transparency, and ordinary citizens.
Perhaps this latest episode of pure corporate servitude – this time delivered by the Congressional GOP, at the expense of individual privacy, with virtually unanimous Democratic opposition – will have a similar effect on others, including those who worked to elect this Republican Congress.
This, of course, is the “swamp” that Trump vowed to “drain,” the oozing corruption of both parties that he endlessly denounced (just as Obama did before him in 2008). If Trump signs this bill, as expected, perhaps it will open more eyes about how Washington really works, who really controls it, for whose benefit it functions, and the serious difficulty of changing it even when you elect politicians who swear over and over that they oppose it all.