It seems that the latest viral trend on the Internet is raising money to buy Congress’ Internet browser history — but is there any truth to these claims, or is it all a hoax? After the House approved SJR34 on Monday (following Senate approval last week), a small group of people have emerged claiming that they are going to buy Congress members’ individual Internet history in retaliation. One GoFundMe called SearchInternetHistory has already raised more than $140,000 toward the effort. Meanwhile, Max Temkin, a creator of Cards Against Humanity, has gone on record saying that he will personally buy Congress’ Internet history without any donations if it’s ever possible, but no one can promise that right now. However, he is encouraging donations to the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the interim. So who’s right? And if it is possible, who will buy the Internet browser history of Congress first?
Here’s what you need to know.
This Isn’t a New Rule, It’s Maintaining the Status Quo
First, one misconception needs to be cleared up. This is not a new resolution and it’s not changing how things currently work. SJR34 simply rolls back a measure that former President Barack Obama put into place a few months ago and hasn’t actually taken effect yet. So whether you agree with the decision or not, Congress isn’t implementing something new. Instead, Congress is rolling back what advertisers could do and keeping the status quo in place. (Provided that President Donald Trump signs the bill, which he is expected to do.) You can read S.J.Res.34 here. The title is:
A joint resolution providing for congressional disapproval under chapter 8 of title 5, United States Code, of the rule submitted by the Federal Communications Commission relating to ‘Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services.’”
The bill itself is short and reads:
Providing for congressional disapproval under chapter 8 of title 5, United States Code, of the rule submitted by the Federal Communications Commission relating to “Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services”.
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That Congress disapproves the rule submitted by the Federal Communications Commission relating to “Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services” (81 Fed. Reg. 87274 (December 2, 2016)), and such rule shall have no force or effect.
So, Congress is simply keeping the status quo alive. The bill allows ISPs like Comcast and Verizon to continue selling browsing information without users’ consent, US News reported. The FCC rule, which is being put aside, would have required ISPs to get consumers to opt-in before they could sell their Internet records. (More troubling, perhaps, is a different bill that would give the FBI access to Internet browsing records without obtaining a warrant first, as long as it was related to national security.)
You Can’t Buy Individuals’ Internet History
At the moment, many experts are stating that it’s not possible to buy individuals’ Internet history. However, some believe it might be theoretically possible to drill down to more specifics given the right data, but it’s all conjecture at the moment.
Buying individuals’ verifiable history isn’t an option right now. As The Verge reported, The Telecommunications Act prohibits sharing individually identifiable customer information (with just a few small exceptions), but it allows more freedom in selling aggregate customer information. So you couldn’t buy an individual Congress person’s browser history. Exactly what you could target in aggregate is still being debated. (The Verge also mentioned The Wiretap Act, which prevents sharing electronic communications without the parties’ consent.)
TechDirt also reported that buying individuals’ Internet history simply isn’t possible, especially given how ISPs handle their data. Advertisers don’t buy specific individuals’ history. Instead, ISPs collect the data and sell targeting when someone visits a website, allowing advertisers some knowledge to base their bids on. Tech Dirt explained that when someone visits a website and the website gets bids for ads on its page, the bidding marketplace may include demographic and interest data. For example, it may show that a male from a specific state is viewing the page, and they recently visited pages on video games and science fiction television. But advertisers never get an individual’s name or more detailed browsing habits than that.
Congress’ vote might, however, embolden ISPs to provide more specific information down the line, some worry. As Ars Technica reported, the vote involved the Congressional Review Act, which will prevent the FCC from issuing a similar future regulation. (Republicans are arguing this rule belongs with the FTC, not the FCC.) In other words, ISPs might theoretically be emboldened to sell more personalized information or narrower aggregate data, Ars Technica argued. Democrats were concerned ISPs could draw maps of where families shop and go to school and even use browsing information to detect health problems or sexual orientation.
TechDirt does point out that it’s “impossible” for ISPs to anonymize the data completely, and it could theoretically leak and be tied back to specific individuals.
As far as buying Congress’ data, it might theoretically be possible to buy data in aggregate at some point in the future, such as a block of IPs, and maybe drill down from there. But that’s pretty hypothetical. What you can’t do is request an individual Congressman’s browsing history.
Multiple GoFundMe Campaigns Are Seeking Donations to Search and Purchase Congress’ Internet History
Meanwhile, multiple GoFundMe campaigns are getting huge support as they seek donations so they can purchase and search Congress members’ Internet history. One was started by Misha Collins of Supernatural fame. The GoFundMe has a $500 million goal and has raised over $61,000 so far. It states that it will “pay to purchase the data of Donald Trump and every Congressperson who voted for SJR34, and to make it publicly available.” The campaign adds: “In the event that we don’t raise enough money to buy the data, all proceeds will go to the ACLU to help fight to protect all Americans’ rights. Thanks.” It doesn’t state, however, what they will do if they raise enough money but it’s not possible to buy the data.
But by far the largest campaign so far is called “Search Internet History” and was started by Adam McElhaney. This GoFundMe has already raised more than $146,000 of a $10,000 goal. The campaign states: “Help me raise money to buy the histories of those who took away your right to privacy for just thousands of dollars from telephone and ISPs. Your private data will be bought and sold to marketing companies, law enforcement. Let’s turn the tables. Let’s buy THEIR history and make it available.”
Heavy contacted McElhaney for more details and to learn what he plans to do with the funds if he can’t buy the individual Internet history. Here’s what he said (we’re sharing his full response):
I know, it is difficult to not be skeptical. If I was in your shoes, I know I would be too.
After the Senate voted to do away with our privacy protections (yes, they were coming later this year. But they where still coming). People were angry. Even more after the House voted. People cried out that this was wrong. To chip away at our civil liberties yet again. To be sold out to another corporation. Someone had to do something.
So I did.
This grew much quicker than I had ever imagined. Do I have a full plan in place? Not yet. I’ve admitted that. But I have start somewhere. I’ve been approached by a lot of people who are in support of this cause. Others who have offered their services: technical, legal, finaical [sic]. There are some smart people out there who want our cause to succeed I plan on utilizing everyone I can.
I know people have said I am going to pocket the money and run. I am not trying to scam anyone. We will find a way to reach our goal, which I think ultimately is to reinstate the laws that will protect us. I am very passionate about Privacy and Net Neutrality. All of which are under constant threat.
So it sounds like McElhaney’s ultimate goal now is to use the funds to reinstate laws that protect individuals on the Internet, including Net Neutrality along with this privacy law. We wrote back for a few more details and are waiting a second response.
There are a couple other smaller GoFundMe campaigns with the same stated goals. One, called “Buy Internet History of Politicians,” has received $420 of a $100,000 goal. Another, called “Purchase GOP Internet History,” has raised $25 of a $5,000 goal.
Max Temkin, a Creator of Cards Against Humanity, Says He Will Personally Buy Congress’ Internet History, but Encourages Donations to EFF Instead
Meanwhile, Max Temkin, a creator of Cards Against Humanity, has stated publicly that he and his company will “buy the browser history of every Congressman and Congressional Aide and publish it.” And, he added, he won’t use a Kickstarter to do it.
He’s also had a lot of negative things to say about the crowdsourcing campaigns raising money to buy the Internet history. He wrote, “be wary of Kickstarters to buy this data, it doesn’t exist and isn’t for sale yet. Nobody knows what they’re talking about.”
And he added:
Later he said that buying Congress’ data was symbolic and encouraged people to donate to the Electronic Frontier Foundation instead. Earlier on Twitter he wrote, “I’ll match $10,000 of donations to @EFF. Post your receipts and tag me.”
On Reddit, he warned that buying Congress’ data, if it’s even possible, would take a long time.
We may have to file FOIA requests. We may have to buy browsing data for Congressional office building ZIP codes and then p-hack our way to statistical significance in an attempt to fish spurious correlations out of unreliable datasets, but we’ve done it before.”
This is in line with what other experts have said. If buying browsing data is even possible, it will likely not be on an individual basis but on an aggregate basis and would require quite a bit of drilling down to get to anything more individualized.
But even if we get this data, it’s a symbolic victory at best. Our basic human rights, like the right to privacy, are being sold to the highest bidder while the best minds of our generation are here on Reddit asking pro gamers if they want to fight a horse-sized duck or whatever. Real, material change requires sacrifice. You probably can’t do it on a computer. If you’re frustrated with the way things are going, the incompetence and corruption of government, and the money in politics, we need to support institutions like the EFF and we need to be heard by elected officials. I really like the tool 5Calls.org. If 100 Redditors called a congressman, it would freak them out and their staff would have to do something about it. It really doesn’t take much.” [bold his]
You Can Keep ISPs From Monitoring Your Activity
Whether or not you feel like donating to a GoFundMe to get Congress’ Internet history, you can take steps to stop ISPs from monitoring your activity, US News reported. You can use a Tor anonymizing browser or a VPN (virtual private network) to keep that activity encrypted and hidden. (Remember, however, that you’re now trusting the VPN with your data rather than the ISPs. But they’d lose a lot of customers if they sold their data.) And also, HTTPS websites only allow ISPs to see websites that were visited, but not individual pages.
Interestingly, back in January major ISP lobby groups signed a pledge to follow FTC guidance on opt-in consent for sensitive information, and an opt-out choice for sending non-sensitive information for advertising. So you might be able to contact your ISP and opt out of tracking, Ars Technica suggested.
So, in conclusion, it’s anyone’s guess who could ultimately buy Congress’ Internet history first — if it even becomes possible. However, Cards Against Humanity might have the best shot at taking aggregate data and drilling it down. In the meantime, however, donating to foundations that advocate for Internet privacy and net neutrality would be a good move for people who are concerned about Congress’ latest vote.