Speaking at a town hall meeting this week, GOP Congressman Jim Sensebrenner of Wisconsin faced an audience member concerned about his vote to block rules that would have required user opt-in before internet service providers could collect their browsing data for advertising or other applications.
The questioner said that, like many Americans, she has only one choice of internet provider where she lives, leaving her no option if she objected to her ISP selling her data.
“Well, you know, nobody has got to use the internet at all. 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 internet companies have invested an awful lot of money in having almost universal service now.“The fact is that I don’t think it’s my job to tell you that you cannot get advertising from your information being sold. 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 that the government should give you . . . I think we should have more choices rather than fewer choices.”
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Video of the exchange was shared on Twitter by the left-wing activist group American Bridge:
There’s a lot to unpack there, but the idea that internet use is optional represents a particularly troubling lack of understanding of how business, jobs, and the economy work today. While it’s certainly true nobody’s forcing you to binge-watch Bojack Horseman on Netflix, there are fewer and fewer jobs in which internet use isn’t important or downright vital. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 35% of professionals and 24% of all U.S. workers did “some or all” of their work at home in 2015, with the bulk of that presumably involving email, research, or online collaboration. And that’s to say nothing of the centrality of digital communication to work in office settings.
Internet use is also crucial to the training of future workers and entrepreneurs. One 2014 Standford survey found that 56% of teachers in high-poverty schools said students’ lack of access to technology was a challenge in the classroom. Those conditions ultimately limit the quality of the talent pool businesses can draw on, while also making it harder to combat income inequality and narrower issues like diversity in tech hiring.
Greater internet use could also help rural economies. Despite Sensebrenner’s claim that private ISPs have built “almost universal service,” there’s still a significant lag in broadband usage in rural areas, much of it due to unequal levels of service access. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has argued that lower internet usage could limit the prosperity of rural areas.
Sensebrenner’s comments implicitly accept that making it easier for ISPs to collect and sell user data could discourage some Americans from using the internet. But all the evidence makes it clear that economic progress hinges on moving the needle in the opposite direction. Businesses need connected workers, and many Americans simply can’t afford to opt out.