The current Republican administration has already lost a huge number of votes over its systematic erosion of individual online rights in favour of ISPs and other big tech companies. And it seems that the Democrat Party has cottoned on to the fact that there is a big tech-savvy voter base there to be won.
This is no doubt why they have published their “Internet Bill of Rights”, a draft bill which would enshrine a whole host of online freedoms into federal law.
There is definitely a receptive audience out there for them. Under the Trump administration, and especially the ideological reign of Ajit Pai, as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), there has been huge damage to online rights in the USA.
Pai has overseen the removal of regulations which ensured the privacy of users online data and a hugely controversial rollback of essential net neutrality laws.
Neither of these moves has been well-received by US internet users, with many already choosing to turn to a VPN to ensure their online privacy as the federal regulator has let them down so badly.
Those VPN users and many more tech-savvy voters have been crying out for the Democrats to take a stand for online rights which the Republicans have attacked so much. And finally, those calls appear to have been answered.
The Democrats’ Internet Bill of Rights
It is Ro Khanna, the Democratic Congressman for California (who also represents Silicon Valley) who has drafted the proposals at the request of Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.
It is not technically a draft bill which could be voted into law in its current form. Rather, it is a set of ten guiding principles which Khanna believes should form the basis of a new internet bill of rights.
There is much to praise in his suggestions and the ten rights Khanna wants to enshrine in law warrant sharing in full. According to the new draft bill of rights, all Americans would have the right:
- to have access to and knowledge of all collection and uses of personal data by companies;
- to opt-in consent to the collection of personal data by any party and to the sharing of personal data with a third party;
- where context is appropriate and with a fair process, to obtain, correct or delete personal data controlled by any company and to have those requests honoured by third parties;
- to have personal data secured and to be notified in a timely manner when a security breach or unauthorized access of personal data is discovered;
- to move all personal data from one network to the next;
- to access and use the Internet without Internet service providers blocking, throttling, engaging in paid prioritization or otherwise unfairly favouring content, applications, services or devices;
- to Internet service without the collection of data that is unnecessary for providing the requested service absent opt-in consent;
- to have access to multiple viable, affordable Internet platforms, services and providers with clear and transparent pricing;
- not to be unfairly discriminated against or exploited based on your personal data; and
- to have an entity that collects your personal data have reasonable business practices and accountability to protect your privacy.
In short, the new bill would restore net neutrality laws, create a right to data portability, require timely notifications of data security breaches, reinstate the right to privacy online, and hand people the right to see what data is being held about them.
For Democrats, the bill strikes a good balance of attacking existing and hugely unpopular Republican policies, while at the same time enabling online businesses to be competitive.
Some of the proposed rights could also be seen as a challenge to the giant online tech companies like Facebook, which have stoked considerable controversy in recent months with revelations of their abuse of user data.
Devil is in the detail
However, while these guiding principles are broadly to be welcomed, the devil is in the detail, as New York Times columnist Kara Swisher, who revealed the new proposals last week, has pointed out.
Because putting these ten rights onto the statute book will be no easy process. And if the legislation involved is not drafted extremely carefully, such a law could even end up damaging online rights still further.
Legislation in this sector is frequently prone to loopholes which can be exploited by tech companies or ISPs who have the budgets to hire the country’s most expensive lawyers to pick such laws apart.
Equally, there is also a risk that badly drafted laws could unintentionally hand excessive powers of surveillance or control to the state at the expense of individual rights.
One example of this was the anti-bot law which was passed in California, which posed an unintentional threat to online freedom of expression until the intervention of the Electronic Freedom Foundation.
The challenge to enshrine internet rights in law
Even if such principles can be successfully drafted into law, getting them onto the statute book will be no easy business. Swisher describes it as “like pushing back the ocean” in her article.
Khanna himself has admitted it would be a slow process and, in an ideal world, would be done with bipartisan support. But in Washington right now, bipartisanship seems almost impossible for even the most common-sense laws, so this is ambitious, to say the least.
But there are at least a few Republican lawmakers who get the importance of online rights, so there is still hope that something can be achieved, despite the inevitable pushback from the army of tech lobbyists and lawyers in Washington.
An Internet Bill of Rights is certainly long overdue in the USA. There are many principles in this document that have been made law elsewhere in the world decades ago.
The US is playing catch-up, which is why they have a relatively high proportion of internet users taking steps to ensure their own online privacy by connecting through a VPN like ExpressVPN or IPVanish.
This latest proposal from the Democrats is certainly to be welcomed. But there is still a long way to go before any of its principles make it into law.