Turns Out Those Efforts to Buy the Internet Histories of Politicians Were Kind of a Scam


Remember earlier this year when social media was full of rage that Congress, and President Trump, had blocked an Obama-era internet privacy rule from going into effect?

The most common refrain was that Congress, and the President, had given internet service providers the ability to sell your browsing history. Dozens of online fundraising efforts sprung up to collect money to buy the internet histories of politicians who supported this policy change.

Only it wasn’t really a policy change. Obama’s rule, which was really more of a sop to his friends at Google than any move toward privacy, never actually took effect. What Congress and President Trump did was preserve the status quo.

And it turns out that, under the status quo, internet service providers can’t actually just sell a given user’s information (emphasis mine):

As Congress voted in March to scrap online privacy rules imposed by the Obama administration, angry internet users devised a plan: They sought to raise big bucks so they could buy and publish lawmakers’ web-browsing histories.

But roughly a month later — despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations — some of these campaigns appear to be admitting defeat and scrambling to figure out how to refund or donate the cash.

It turns out, it isn’t really possible to contact a broadband provider like AT&T or Comcast* and buy data on a specific internet user and the websites they visit. Of course, that’s always been the case, said Jules Polonetsky, the leader of the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. “In no conceivable way is it legal … to sell the individual browser history of a person,” he told Recode in an interview Thursday.

If you donated money to one of these efforts you should probably try and got it back. Because it sure seems like you got sacmmed.

I can add some first hand evidence that this is true. A while back Congressman Kevin Cramer said on air that he’d turn over his internet browsing history to whoever asked. So I put in a request for that history – hey, if he’s offering, why not? – and it turns out Cramer’s ISP couldn’t turn over that data.

Because they don’t keep it.

“Midco is unable to provide any browsing history information,” Midcontinet Communications told Cramer in a letter. “Midco does not track, capture, keep or retain any user’s browsing history. Midco does not have any software or systems set up to do so.”

“Midco wants to assure you this answer is not due to your status as a political official,” their letter continued. “The same answer would be given to any Midco customer. Further, the same answer would be given in response to a court order or subpoena requesting that type of information.”

Maybe, just maybe, all the outrage on this topic was fake news.