By Kristine Phillips, 2017 The Washington Post
A Wisconsin congressman told a town hall attendee who was concerned about the elimination of online privacy protections that using the Internet is a choice — a statement that has since drawn criticism on social media.
During the meeting in Wisconsin on Thursday, the attendee asked about the recent decision by Congress to wipe away an Obama-era policy that sought to limit what Internet service providers, such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast, can do with customers’ Internet browsing history. The concern is similar to one raised by consumer activists: Not all Internet users have options to switch to a different company if they don’t agree with their current provider’s privacy practices.
“Facebook is not comparable to an ISP. I do not have to go to Facebook,” the town hall attendee told Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. “I do have one provider. … I have one choice. I don’t have to go on Google. My ISP provider is different than those providers.”
In response, Sensenbrenner, who voted to scrap the Federal Communications Commission’s privacy rules that were set to take effect at the end of this year, said:
“Nobody’s got to use the Internet. And the thing is that if you start regulating the Internet like a utility, if we did that right at the beginning, we would have no Internet. Internet companies have invested an awful lot of money in having almost universal service now. The fact is is that, you know, I don’t think it’s my job to tell you that you cannot get advertising for your information being sold. My job, I think, is to tell you that you have the opportunity to do it, and then you take it upon yourself to make that choice. That’s what the law has been, and I think we ought to have more choices rather than fewer choices with the government controlling our everyday lives.”
The congressman then moved on to the next question.
Brad Bainum, a spokesman for American Bridge, a liberal super PAC, tweeted a video of Sensenbrenner responding to the constituent’s question: “@JimPressOffice tells his constituents not to use the internet if they don’t like his vote to sell out their privacy to advertisers.”
Sensenbrenner’s press office responded to the tweet, reiterating the congressman’s comment: “Actually, he said that nobody has to use the Internet. They have a choice. Big difference.”
An official from Sensenbrenner’s office said Saturday that the congressman’s point is that people can choose whether or not they want to use certain websites. For instance, in using Facebook, people have the option to agree (or not agree) with its terms of agreement, which covers what kind of information the social media site collects from its users.
The official added that the video clip posted by American Bridge was blown out of proportion and is just a small segment of a town hall meeting that lasted about an hour and a half.
Sensenbrenner, who represents Wisconsin’s 5th Congressional District in the southeastern part of the state, is a veteran congressman. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1978 after serving 10 years in the state legislature.
Chaotic scenes similar to this one have become a new normal at Republican town hall events across the United States, reminiscent of the tea party movement that intensified following Obama’s election in 2008. But now it’s the Republicans who are enduring “protests, sharp rebukes and emotional questions about what they see as a sharp turn in governance as well as the House and Senate’s willingness to check the White House,” The Washington Post’s Dan Zak and Terence Samuel wrote this year.
Despite recent turmoil at town halls, Sensenbrenner hosts many town hall meetings throughout the year, according to his website. The town hall on Thursday was one of four he held in his home state that day.
Sensenbrenner’s statement has since drawn criticism from social-media users. Some accused the 73-year-old congressman of being out of touch in the digital age, when something as basic as paying the bills, buying clothes or finding a job is done online.
“Nobody has to use indoor plumbing or electricity. They can just use outhouses and kerosene lamps. They have a choice, right?” one Twitter user wrote.
“Nobody has to use the Internet? Many jobs require it. Schools require it. Take his office Internet away, maybe?” said another.
“I’m an online editor. I have to use the Internet. Welcome to 2017,” another one wrote.
The Internet has become such a fixed part of people’s everyday lives, the United Nations considers access to it a human right. In 2016, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution declaring that denying someone the ability to access or disseminate information online is a human rights violation.
The measures approved during the Obama administration would’ve required telecommunication carriers to inform their customers that they can opt in or opt out from allowing companies to share their confidential information. Republicans viewed the regulations as burdensome and excessive.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump signed the bill, nullifying the Obama measures. This means that providers will be able to monitor their customers’ online behavior and, without their permission, use their personal and financial information to sell highly targeted ad spaces, The Post’s Brian Fung wrote.
In a column published in The Post on April 4, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and Federal Trade Commission acting chairman Maureen Ohlhausen said the criticisms of the bill are based on a “wildfire of misinformation.”
“First, despite hyperventilating headlines, Internet service providers have never planned to sell your individual browsing history to third parties. That’s simply not how online advertising works. And doing so would violate ISP’s privacy promises,” they wrote. “Second, Congress’s decision last week didn’t remove existing privacy protections; it simply cleared the way for us to work together to reinstate a rational and effective system for protecting consumer privacy.”
The Center for Digital Democracy, however, slammed the new law.
“President Trump just killed any hope that Americans would enjoy basic privacy protections online,” Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said in a statement. “By signing this bill, Mr. Trump has allied himself with the telecommunications and digital media giants who seek to profit from every detail of our lives.”
The Washington Post’s Lindsey Bever and Cleve Wootson contributed to this report.
If you’d like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.