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Turns Out, Congress’ Internet History Can’t Be Sold

It was a beautiful, snarky, pointed idea while it lasted.

Up in arms over pending legislation that would allow ISPs to sell users’ browser history to the highest bidder, Max Temkin had a brilliant idea.

The creator of Cards Against Humanity proposed buying the internet history of members of Congress. Give them a taste of their own medicine, that kind of thing.

In a tweet on March 27, Temkin said he would buy and publish the browser history of every member of Congress, all 435 of them. His notion quickly gained support – more than 26,000 people retweeted his message, which also rose to the top of Reddit as people wanted to contribute or demanded to review the information right away. All the attention kind of scared him.

“First off—this bill hasn’t been signed, the data doesn’t exist, and nobody knows what they’re talking about,” he wrote. “We don’t know if there will be any data to buy, how it will work, or what will be available. This means you should be very skeptical of any GoFundMe projects to buy this data. They are making promises they can’t possibly keep.”

Further, Temkin pledged that, should the data become available, “myself and Cards Against Humanity will do whatever we can to acquire and publish it. We have a long track record of activism and spending around government transparency issues. We’ve donated over a million dollars to the Sunlight Foundation and the (Electronic Frontier Foundation).”

For those geared up and wanting to do something, anything, in protest of this proposed legislation, he encouraged people to make a donation to EFF, with a promise to match all donations to $100,000.

The underlying threat to privacy is what matters most here, he insists. “Even if we get this data, it’s a symbolic victory at best. Our basic human rights, like the right to privacy, are being sold to the highest bidder while the best minds of our generation are here on Reddit asking pro gamers if they want to fight a horse-sized duck or whatever. Real, material change requires sacrifice. You probably can’t do it on a computer. If you’re frustrated with the way things are going, the incompetence and corruption of government, and the money in politics, we need to support institutions like the EFF and we need to be heard by elected officials.”

It seems Temkin’s grand designs couldn’t come to fruition anyway. But the fears of individual Americans having their personal, individual history under scrutiny might be slightly over-exaggerated too.

Over at The Verge, Russell Brandom explains that, no matter how good it might feel to pledge money to a crowdfunding effort to buy this history, it can’t be done. Sorry.

“In fact, what the campaigns describe would be illegal no matter what the FCC does. The Telecommunications Act explicitly prohibits the sharing of ‘individually identifiable’ customer information except under very specific circumstances. It’s much more permissive when it comes to aggregate customer information, which is where things get squishier and the FCC rules become more important,” he writes. “We could argue all day about whether a targeted ad is individually identifiable or not, but if you’re paying Verizon to find out which sites Paul Ryan visited last month, that’s pretty clearly individual information, and pretty clearly illegal to sell.”

Even the WireTap Act makes it “illegal to divulge the contents of electronic communications without the parties’ consent, which arguably includes browsing history,” Brandom says.

There’s still plenty of valid reasons to be up-in-arms and angry about what Congress is close to doing, he adds. “It really will encourage more data collection and more aggressive ad targeting by service providers and leave customers with few ways to escape. Aggregate data can still be invasive, as modern web advertising demonstrates over and over. It’s a fight worth having! But that’s a far cry from buying individual web histories.”

There’s also one other thing to consider. It’s the job of Congress – the real job, as in what they’re allegedly paid to do and sworn to uphold – to act in the overall interest of the US and its citizens. I’m not talking about drilling for oil in the Arctic Circle or turning the Grand Canyon into a sea of billboards or even whether it’s a sane idea to prohibit the utterance of the phrase “climate change” like the Department of Energy did last week. (That’s right, they did. The friggin’ DoE can’t say the words anymore, neither can anyone who works there. For cryin’ out loud. Anyway.)

Think for a moment about what members of Congress are elected to do: In addition to fundraising to keep themselves in office and all other manner of work that divide voters and keep the manufacturers of blood pressure medication employed, there are matters of national security and defense and intelligence and so on and so forth to consider. Making the search history of members of Congress up for bids could, in reality, expose some security issues. I think there are enough problems with that as it is, without the help of Verizon, AT&T or any other company putting it up for sale.


Amber Healy

I write about music policy and lawsuits because they're endlessly fascinating.

Amber Healy has 521 posts and counting. See all posts by Amber Healy

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