How Did Americans Lose Their Right to Privacy?

Published April 6, 2018

Americans want their right to privacy restored.

Prior to 1996, Americans had a well-established, offline right to privacy based on the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and several strong federal privacy statutes passed in1974197419781984198619881994, and 1996.

In 1996, Congress also unwittingly and effectively set in motion an exceptional erosion of Americans’ established offline right to privacy when it passed the Telecom Act, which specially exempted and immunized Internet platforms from normal governmental accountability and consumer protection responsibilities.

Over two decades, this Wild West Internet industrial policy, which has been interpreted by Internet platforms and the courts, has eroded bit by bit Americans established offline right to privacy with a de facto U.S. online privacy piracy policy today.

In practice, America’s Internet law has transmogrified into open season on American consumers’ personal data. That’s because the U.S. Government effectively immunized Internet platforms’ in advance, from civil liability for the collection, use, and monetization of personal information online, that otherwise could be illegal to do offline.

In the near unanimous, bipartisan passage of the 1996 Telecom Act, no one voted to subvert consumers well-established right to privacy.

Nonetheless, since then, Americans’ privacy has been steadily, pervasively, and invasively taken away from them, largely without their consent or meaningful assent, and over much ongoing dissent.

Apparently, the biggest unintended consequence of the 1996 Telecom Act’s de facto Internet industrial policy has been its egregious erosion of Americans’ right to privacy and security.

Enough. Americans overwhelmingly want their right to privacy restored.

Internet platforms well-marketed and self-serving mantra that people really don’t care about their privacy anymore, warrants healthy skepticism because they obviously do.

Personal privacy has been, is, and will continue to be one of the most bipartisan, overwhelmingly popular issues Congress can resolve.

Why? At the most basic level, privacy is integral to the natural human need for self-preservation. Privacy is akin to being able to hide from potential predatory harm. Without the ability to safeguard one’s privacy, one can’t protect one’s safety, security, identity, reputation, relationships, or dignity.

No privacy means less security and less control over one’s own life.

Privacy is central in a civil society because it is the freedom from harm and from government tyranny. No privacy in the uncivilized Wild West Internet – which is essentially everywhere Americans live, work, and play — is the perverse immunity, and inverse freedom, for Internet platforms to do most whatever they want with American’s personal data.

American freedom is freedom from harms, not freedom to harm others.

A decade ago, I testified before Congress on Internet privacy problems, and I have blogged about Internet privacy piracy problems many dozens of times since.

Tellingly, a poll Precursor LLC commissioned with Zogby International in 2010 polling 2,111 American adults, created strong confidence that privacy is an overwhelmingly popular and bipartisan American consumer need and issue. Others can poll the same questions today and expect comparable results given all that has happened to diminish Americans’ online privacy since.

Consider these particularly overwhelming and telling findings:

  • “The large majority (88%) believe consumers should enjoy similar legal privacy protections online as they have offline, while 4% do not.”
  • “Nine in ten (88%) believe that tracking where Internet users go on the Internet without their permission is an unfair business practice, while 7% believe it is a fair practice.”
  • “Relaxing a privacy policy after a company has collected personal information and associations is an unfair business practice according to nine in ten (91%), while just 1% believe it is a fair practice.”

These findings indicate Google, Facebook, and Amazon are on the opposite side of overwhelmingly bipartisan public opinion. That’s because GoogleFacebook, and Amazon have all done this online privacy “bait-and-switch” in promising to protect consumers’ privacy and then reneging after they have the personal data.

In sum, it makes no sense to have a strong offline consumer right to privacy and minimal online consumer right to privacy when Internet platforms are everywhere we live, work and play.

Harms from loss of privacy hurt consumers and their security, regardless of the technology involved.

Congress needs to restore American consumers’ rights to privacy and security, that have been egregiously eroded by U.S. Wild West Internet policy, by ensuring equal accountability under the law for privacy offline and online.

There is overwhelming bipartisan support for what American’s naturally want and need: same consumers, same privacy rules – regardless of the technology.

[Originally Published at Precursor]