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Threats to Online Privacy: What a Trump Administration May Do to Cyberspace

Part two of our series exploring Trump's plan for online privacy.

By TechRadar Pro | Feb 22, 2017, 08.22 PM IST
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This is a follow-up to the story ‘How Trump’s Cybersecurity Quest May Reshape the Internet’.

 President Trump has been vocal about his fondness for mass online surveillance ; "I want surveillance of these people," he announced in reference to Muslim Americans during his campaign. According to Edgar, it may not be as difficult to implement such surveillance as one might think. In his essay, Edgar explains: “If Trump decides to build a great firewall, he may not need Congress. Section 606 of the Communications Act of 1934 provides emergency powers to seize control of communications facilities if the president declares there is a ‘war or threat of war’ or ‘a state of public peril.’”

In 2010, a Senate report concluded that Section 606 ‘gives the President the authority to take over wire communications in the United States and, if the President so chooses, shut a network down.’ With a signature, the former reality television star could invoke it. Section 606 has never been applied to the internet before, but there is no law stating that it cannot be. Edgar adds, “If Trump wants to ‘close that internet up,’ all he will need is an opinion from his Attorney General that Section 606 gives him authority to do so, and that the threat of terrorism is compelling enough to override any First Amendment concerns.”

Online Freedom

While on the surface it may seem that Trump champions protecting the people with cybersecurity, he doesn’t seem to grasp the concept of online freedom. “We have to talk ... about, maybe in certain areas, closing that internet up in some way,” he stated at a rally in South Carolina during his campaign. He also warned that "certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country,” such as policies that "were frankly unthinkable a year ago." It is this kind of minatory rhetoric that seems to show Trump’s true colours, and frighten those who believe that the right to personal privacy from the government should not be limited to the physical.

At least Donald Trump’s stance on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and net neutrality are crystal clear, though it still comes with glaring discrepancies. Net neutrality — the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) should not restrict access to, favour, or block certain content or services delivered online — was brought about in the early 2000s by Columbia University media law professor, Tim Wu. Issues concerning net neutrality had been practically nonexistent until 2014 when FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, proposed a plan that would have allowed internet giants like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast to create “pay-to-play” fast lanes. But Americans spoke out, causing Wheeler to throw out his original proposal and release new net neutrality rules based on Title II of the Communications Act, which would regulate broadband as a public utility and put internet users’ protection as the number one priority. Still, net neutrality has not come without backlash from Congress, the courts, and now the incoming President.

Obama Legacy

Trump is seeking to reverse the Obama administration's policies concerning net neutrality and loosen the regulations that govern ISPs and data. He advocates for reclassifying broadband from a public utility like electricity or water to an information service, and charging it as such. Supporters of the previous administration want to prohibit paid prioritisation and blocking because it would be bad for consumers, whereas supporters of the incoming administration believe that this kind of broadly-offered service would benefit business. Trump plans to expedite this process as soon as he takes office, which means we could be witnessing a widely discriminatory internet very soon. 

 Some of the most pressing items on the conservative President’s to-do list are to replace FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, and to end the FCC’s involvement in the telecommunications market. This decision to replace Wheeler has been supported by The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a nonprofit public policy think tank in Washington D.C., who believe that the FCC overstepped its boundaries when it changed broadband regulations. “A Trump-appointed FCC chair has a chance to fix that mistake,” stated Robert Atkinson, ITIF President.

But by cutting the FCC out of internet regulation altogether, privacy oversight of ISPs would fall to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC); and instead of having the FCC regulate the behaviour of users or determine what is unfair or deceptive, the responsibility falls on trade groups in different industries.  The FCC released rules in October of 2016 that allowed broadband users “increased choice, transparency, and security over their personal data." These rules would automatically be nullified if the 2015 FCC’s TCPA Declaratory Ruling and Order is thrown out. So, with laxer regulations and an FCC that does not oversee internet regulation, results will likely include higher internet and cable bills, worse customer service, and fewer, less varied choices for service. With laxer regulations, it will also easier for cable and phone companies to mine the browsing habits of and other information relating to customers in order to target ads. Many companies have already expressed excitement over Trump’s reduced regulation plan, like Verizon, who has been attempting to build a digital ad-business to compete with Google and Facebook but has been met with recent privacy rules that require them to ask for customers’ permission before using their data.

What's next

While it remains unseen whether Donald Trump will actually put an end to net neutrality as we know it, the threat still looms over us. Without net neutrality, access to certain web services may be manipulated by local cable and phone companies. Matt Wood, policy director for the public-interest group Free Press, stated that “Internet providers could use subtle tactics and behind-the-scenes manoeuvres to change people's behaviour and make more money,” and many consumers could see a decline in the number and variety of services offered, and an increase in prices. While these kinds of alterations could lead to a censored internet where information is not so free, network encryption apps provide the best way to combat this.

While Trump does not seem to have a very firm grasp on modern technology, he has promised tech leaders that his administration will continue to support the furthering of new technologies and support their innovations every step of the way. As President-elect, Trump met with various tech leaders to discuss job creation, innovation, free trade, and cybersecurity. Representatives from Google, Apple , Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Oracle, and Cisco were in attendance, however, one innovator was notably missing. Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, did not receive an invitation to meet with Trump, a snub which struck many as odd considering the conservative’s frequent and controversial use of the micro-blogging platform. 

Despite the threats to online privacy and internet freedom that have been made apparent in Donald Trump’s rhetoric, it’s been proven time and time again that he cannot always be held at his word. We can only hope that the new administration puts the right policies and practices in place that will protect the integrity of our online environment and put an end to privacy threats before they even begin. Even with hope, it is imperative that the American people do not take the issues of online privacy lightly.  What matters most now, is that President Donald J. Trump’s powers to survey and control the internet do exist. The people of America must prepare themselves for “turnkey tyranny,” as Edward Snowden put it in his first interview — and the fact that some new leader, someday, may “find the switch.”

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