Technology × Freedom

The Browser Act Treats Consumers Like Children

June 1, 2017 invisiblehand

The Browser Act, sponsored by Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, is currently being peddled around the House of Representatives as a solution to the data privacy "problem." I put that word in quotes because it's really not a problem at all. But if government court magicians like Rep. Blackburn didn't exist to whip up problems out of thin air, no one would find value in the government's "solutions." Back to that in a moment. First, more on the Browser Act. The Daily Caller reports:

The "Browser Act"… mandates that people must explicitly give permission to internet service providers (ISPs) and websites wanting to use their browsing history and other data for business purposes.

“I think it is necessary to get our consumers the strongest toolbox possible to allow them to control their virtual presence,” Blackburn told The Daily Caller News Foundation (TheDCNF) in an interview. “Individuals in the physical world have the opportunity to hold personal information private and they should have that same opportunity in the virtual space.”

First, while all of that may be true, Rep. Blackburn offers no reason why this "opportunity" must be safeguarded by the government rather than by the free market. Second, Blackburn ignores the fact that this opportunity is already provided by the free market. All of the major ISPs have already pledged not to sell customers' browsing data. As for Google and Facebook, plenty of alternative services already exist that do not sell their users' data. So, the Browser Act not only antagonizes the free market (something Republicans are supposed to be all about) but does so in a way that is obviously and demonstrably unnecessary.

However well-intentioned Rep. Blackburn may be, the presumption underlying this bill is that consumers are as helpless and ignorant as little children who, unable to fend for themselves, require the parental concern and protection that can only be afforded by the state. It reminds me of one of my favorite passages from Frédéric Bastiat's The Law. Forgive the long quote - it's worth it:

When it is time to vote, apparently the voter is not to be asked for any guarantee of his wisdom. His will and capacity to choose wisely are taken for granted…. But when the legislator is finally elected - ah! then indeed does the tone of his speech undergo a radical change. The people are returned to passiveness, inertness, and unconsciousness…. The people who, during the election, were so wise, so moral, and so perfect, now have no tendencies whatever; or if they have any, they are tendencies that lead downward into degradation.

Clearly then, the conscience of the social democrat cannot permit persons to have any liberty because they believe that the nature of mankind tends always toward every kind of degradation and disaster. Thus, of course, the legislators must make plans for the people in order to save them from themselves.

This line of reasoning brings us to a challenging question: If people are as incapable, as immoral, and as ignorant as the politicians indicate, then why is the right of these same people to vote defended with such passionate insistence?

The fact is, people use Google and Facebook because they value these companies' services more than they value their data privacy. When that is no longer true, they will stop using these services. Since Rep. Blackburn believes people don't know what's good for them, perhaps she should save consumers not only from their own fatalistic desire to use these services, but also from their fatalistic decision to vote Rep. Blackburn into office in the first place. This logical conclusion would save us all a lot of trouble.