From a distance, it can often be easy to criticize Congress as being out of touch, no matter what members are actually doing or what policies they’re proposing. But every once in a while, you get a response so staggeringly clueless you wonder if a lawmaker is living on the same planet you are.
This week’s gem comes from Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who doesn’t think anyone actually needs to use the internet for anything and that opting out of the 21st century is a valid “choice” for consumers.
Sensenbrenner’s quip came as a response to an attendee at a town hall event asking a straightforward question about why he was one of the 215 members of the House who voted to kill off the FCC’s ISP privacy rule.
The participant started out by giving the common explanation for why your ISP is different from the edge providers — internet-based companies and services — you use.
“Facebook is not comparable to an ISP. I do not have to go on Facebook,” they said, before noting that when it comes to who provides their connection, “I have one choice. I don’t have to go on Google. My ISP provider is different than those providers.”
This is true: You have the option, once online, to connect or not to connect to any services you want. If you don’t like the way Google and Facebook collect and use your data, then you can bypass them and use other services and tools to keep your digital footprints to yourself, at least in theory.
But millions upon millions of Americans have exactly one “choice” for broadband service to their homes, and so can’t comparison-shop to pick which provider we like better based on their privacy policies (or cost, customer service, connection speed, or anything else). Also, once you have subscribed to a particular service, you can’t just stop sending your internet traffic through it suddenly if it begins doing something you don’t like.
Sensenbrenner’s response to this, however, was less than useful.
“Well, again,” he said, “Nobody’s got to use the internet, at all.”
Sensenbrenner continued, “And the thing is, if you start regulating the internet like a utility, if we did that right at the beginning, we would have no internet. And the internet companies have invested an awful lot of money in having almost universal service now.”
“I don’t think it’s my job to tell you that you cannot get advertising for your information being sold,” he concluded. “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 the choice.”
You can see a video clip of the exchange in this Tweet:
Choice, however, is not something most Americans generally have when it comes to internet use.
Government reports have found that only somewhere between 25% and 37% of Americans have two or more high-speed broadband providers serving their area — so even at the most generous assessment, something like 60% of us only have one company to use.
That lack of competition is one of the reasons the FCC crafted and adopted its ISP Privacy rule in the first place. That rule, however, is now defunct, after the House and Senate both voted to pass a resolution disapproving of it, which the President then signed into law.
Sensenbrenner’s main point, though — that you don’t have to use the internet, so quit if you don’t like the conditions — is laughably wrong. A huge number of people do need to use the internet.
Millions of Americans work in tech- or internet-based jobs (hello!), telecommute, work remotely, or simply even need to know what’s going on in the world right now in order to do their jobs effectively. Even job applications for low-wage fast food and retail jobs are online now — and that’s without even getting into education, government services, social connections, and every other use of the great wide digital world that consumers have not only become accustomed to, but are often required to use whether they like it or not.