On Tuesday, Republicans in Congress voted to strip away privacy protections for internet users, making it legal for internet service providers, or ISPs, to sell users’ browsing histories to marketers. If this news has you nervously recounting every strange and potentially incriminating Google search you’ve ever performed, you’re not alone.
Before the measure went up for a vote, Cards Against Humanity creator Max Temkin vowed he’d turn the tables on Congress and instill in them that same feeling of vulnerability we’re all now experiencing about the sale of our online lives. “If this shit passes I will buy the browser history of every congressman and congressional aide and publish it. cc @SpeakerRyan,” he tweeted, later saying on Reddit, “We have a long track record of activism and spending around government transparency issues.” For those unfamiliar with Temkin’s game itself, it’s a sort of politically incorrect spin on Apples to Apples. (One group called the Sid Lee Collective even created an unofficial Donald Trump expansion pack of cards—pictured above—featuring phrases like “father-daughter incest and Yuuuge; unfortunately, it never hit the market.)
Of course, the problem with dismantling internet privacy goes way beyond the discomfort and embarrassment of other people seeing how much time you spend on niche porn sites or the fact that you Google “Why doesn’t anybody love me?” every night before bed. There are serious implications of marketers buying your data in an effort to better place their products in your eye line and deep within your brainwaves.
Once it’s accepted that people don’t have the right to control who sees their browsing history, it’s only a matter of time before it can be made available to landlords, loan officers, employers and anyone else who might want to discriminate against people based on the websites they visit. As the Trump administration brings us closer to a real-life dystopia, there’s also the threat of the government surveilling civilian internet use to entrap them. The standby response “if you haven’t done anything wrong then what’s the problem?” to such fears has always missed the point of privacy concerns, but it’s especially out of touch in today’s world when the government is leaning into discrimination against LGBTQ people, immigrants, and women under the guises of religious freedom and domestic security.
What if an employer could fire you because you watch gay porn at home? What if your searches for abortion providers could be used as evidence against you in court when it’s legal to prosecute women for abortions? What if searches for immigration services brings ICE to your front door?
People have good reason to be fired up. In addition to Temkin’s promise, two GoFundMe campaigns have also raised more than $240,000 (combined) to buy politicians’ browser histories, but, as Temkin warned on Reddit, people should avoid donating to those campaigns so soon, since the bill has not yet been signed. “[Those campaigns] are making promises they can’t possibly keep. The data doesn’t exist, and nobody knows what they’re talking about,” he said. “If and when any data becomes available, myself and Cards Against Humanity will do whatever we can do acquire it and publish it,” Temkin explained, adding that this may require FOIA requests.
Several Democrats in Congress voted against the measure, including Representative John Lewis of Georgia who tweeted, “I believe that user data belongs to the consumer, not the provider, and should not be sold for profit by ISPs or telecoms.”
With Temkin’s satisfyingly vindictive vow to buy anti-privacy congress members’ browsing histories gaining lots of attention, he has since followed up with a reminder that giving Congress a taste of their own medicine is a “purely symbolic” move. If people want to make a real difference in protecting their online privacy, he said, they should donate to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit whose “public interest legal work, activism and software development preserve fundamental rights” for internet users. He’s also put his money where his mouth is, pledging to match $10,000 worth of donations.