As a state representative, my job under the Constitution is to work “for the security, benefit and protection of the people … ” Right now, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is poised to make that job much harder.
The FCC wants to prohibit the Minnesota Legislature from protecting Minnesota consumers when giant internet and telecommunications companies want to take, sell and profit from their private data without consent.
Last spring, Congress bowed to pressure from the big internet and telecommunications special interests and voted to change the rules to strip consumers of their legal rights. Congress said our consent was no longer necessary before internet and telecommunications companies could use and sell our private data.
In response, Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, and I proposed statutory protections here in Minnesota to protect residents’ privacy by requiring that those companies get our consent before they obtain, sell and profit from our private data. The law passed the Legislature by a vote of 200-1.
But guess what? The internet and telecom special interests got into the behind-closed-doors, end-of-session negotiations and the final bill stripped out those protections. And now those same special interests want unelected Washington, D.C., bureaucrats to forever immunize them from any state consumer protection legislation.
Why does this matter? We’ve all seen the growing dominance of companies like Google, Facebook and big cable and telecom companies on our economy, our politics and our culture. Reports of these companies scanning our data, our e-mails, our connections and contacts to learn incredibly personal information and build detailed, intimate profiles of each of us should scare all Americans. Stories like that of the social worker who showed up at a client’s house to be greeted with a very personal nickname after the social worker showed up in the client’s People You May Know on Facebook (despite the fact the two had never shared any contact information) occur over and over across this state.
Beyond the serious threat to our expectations of privacy, we should also consider the role these companies play in the growing income inequality in this country. Google, Facebook as well as some of the largest telecommunications companies hold what amounts to monopoly power over huge and critical swaths of our economy. Think about what that means long term for consumer prices; what it means for the ability of small entrepreneurs and Main Street small businesses to compete and succeed. Instead of giving in to their special interest demands, our federal government and state authorities should be challenging this consolidation of economic power.
That becomes even clearer when we consider the significant revenue these companies gain from taking our private information — something of obvious great economic value — for free or next to nothing and using and selling it at great profit. The powerful get richer from what belongs to us.
To rebalance the economic power of Minnesotans and these dominating internet and telecommunications companies, I have proposed that those companies reimburse individual consumers at a fair price for the value of the personal information these companies glean from us every day. It’s time for Minnesotans to have ownership of their own personal information recognized and to share in the profits made off the sale of that information. But such efforts would be halted if the FCC acts.
Here’s the good news. We are not entirely powerless in the face of this huge power grab by the internet and telecommunications special interests. Prior court cases support states like Minnesota challenging the FCC’s overreach in court. And we still have a representative democracy in this country.
The FCC decision will be made on Dec. 14. Weigh in right now with your federal representatives and tell them that you are opposed to this change and tell them to tell the FCC bureaucrats to stand with consumers and not with the big special interests.
Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, is a member of the Minnesota House.