Cash rules everything around D.C.
That’s hardly a new revelation, but it’s worth revisiting after Congress recently voted (twice) to gut important data privacy regulations that would have forced your internet provider to at least ask your permission before tracking you across the internet and selling that information to the highest bidder.
Trump is expected to sign the bill into law soon, ensuring your data will no longer be yours and that internet service providers will be able to make a ton of money off it. Great news.
But how the hell did we get here? The easy answer: Money. Bags of it. The telecom industry has given huge amounts of cash to the politicians who voted to give them basically unlimited powers to track your internet usage and then sell that data to the highest bidders.
What the hell happened?
Well, the Trump administration hired an unabashedly pro-industry head of the government’s primary regulator of internet providers. That person, Ajit Pai, put the rule protecting you against it in the guillotine right away. And the Republican congress was happy to fall in line.
The U.S. Senate vote that approved the repeal a week ago was strictly along party lines: 50 Republicans for (and 2 voting absent) with 48 Democrats against.
Tuesday’s U.S. House vote was similarly party-oriented. The main difference was the defection of 15 Republicans who joined Democrats in voting “no” but that didn’t matter as the bill still passed by a tally of 215 to 205 with 9 no votes (6 GOP, 3 Dems).
But, also: money. Lots of it. Given to congressmen.
It pays to play
Those 265 congressmen who voted to repeal have more cash in their pockets thanks to the telecom industry, as flagged by The Verge. Data collected by the National Institute on Money in State Politics showed how much each of those 265 legislators collected from telecom corporations or employees of those corporations in the recent election cycle.
And, unsurprisingly, those with connections to important committees for the telecom industry tended to be among the biggest takers.
The biggest benefactor? Why, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of course, who bagged over $250,000 for his most recent election from these donors. Eleven other senators hit six digits in donations, too, including John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, who came away with $215,000.
The donations for House members were considerably smaller but there were some who still raked in some healthy dough. Greg Walden (OR), who just so happens to be the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee, pulled in the most of any House member at $155,100.
It’s all about that cold, hard cash
The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, who knows a thing or two about online privacy, went in hard on what he calls “corporate-donor servitude” in a column following the vote, noting that the forces involved here didn’t even try to dress the vote up as necessary for national security.
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, theres no minimally persuasive rationale that can be concocted for this vote. It manifestly has only onepurpose: maximizing the commercial interests of these telecom giants at the expense of ordinary citizens. Its so blatant here that it cannot even be disguised.
Greenwald used quotes from Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (TN) and Senator John Cornyn (TX) throwing out more random reasons for the repeal to prove his point. Blackburn said the original regulation was “big government overreach” and Cornyn said it would “stifle economic growth.”
So let’s bring it full circle: Blackburn, who followed Walden’s footsteps as chairman of the House subcommittee on communications and technology, received $84,000, according to the data The Verge shared.
And Coryn, who chairs the Senate’s Subcommittee on International Trade, Customs, and Global Competitiveness, received $148,000, which is certainly positive economic growth for Coryn.
Ads, ads, ads!
So, here we are.
None of this is necessarily shocking but, as Greenwald notes, what is surprising is just how little effort was put in to making this seem like anything other than what it is: the opportunity for those telecom companies who are stoked to offer you unlimited data! to sell off your data to the highest bidder.
Consumer data, particularly the kind generated by internet traffic, has become incredibly valuable thanks to the emergence of companies that can use this information to create highly targeted advertising. Google and Facebook in particular have emerged as leaders in digital advertising thanks to their massive data libraries.
I saw this first hand one day on Facebook. I’m a fan of both the Chicago Cubs and jam band Phish, two seemingly disparate entities. But because Facebook has data showing them I’m a fan of both, they were able to target me with this incredibly specific ad.
So get ready for more of this. And for those companies to access all of your data whether you want them to or not. And the money those companies paid out to your elected representatives will, in the long run, likely pale in comparison they’ll reap when they make money off your private data.
Something to keep in mind next time you enter the voting booth.