THE BLOG

There's No Privacy in Third World America

08/10/2010 09:32 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A big New York foundation once told me years ago that privacy is the last thing people in the developing world have to worry about. It was a nice way of saying no to funding for my consumer group's privacy project, but the line rang out to me again this week as new reporting at the Wall Street Journal brings into focus the great privacy betrayals of America's giant tech companies and Third World America makes its debut.

As a one-time homeless advocate, I know the housing, health care or economic crisis can hit a family like a tornado and take away everything in an instant. It's a more and more common scenario for two of every ten Americans, likely to be hit with a foreclosure, a bankruptcy brought on by medical bills, or a job loss. When you have your eye on your job, your health care or your adjustable rate mortgage, it's hard to keep track of anything else, let alone your online privacy, or how Google defines "net neutrality."

America's big tech companies know this too and they are taking advantage of the crisis to rewrite the rules of an open and free Internet, and our privacy rights.

Virtually overnight Google -- the "don't be evil" guys -- did an about-face on treating the Internet as a freeway, "net neutrality," and decided to turn it into a toll road for big bidders and the ever expanding wireless world.

Google says our data won't get caught in the slow lane, but it's hard to believe any of the Internet Goliath's claims after reading the Wall Street Journal's latest installment of its excellent series on the loss of online privacy. The Journal nails Google with internal documents showing how each of its services tracks users' personal information online and the brainstorming inside Googleplex about what can be done with the data. One great idea is to potentially charge Google users for the right not to have their personal information shared with advertisers.

Google's not the only offender, the WSJ found documents at Microsoft as it went through the same type of internal debate about how to monetize our online lives. But Google was supposed to be different, not evil.

Some of the leading progressive groups in America were even shocked at Google's thinly disguised net-neutrality reversal, but it's consistent with the tech giant's rapid expansion and focus on economic growth at the expense of principle. That's why Consumer Watchdog launched Inside Google this Spring to report on such troubling developments at the company as the it veers from the principles it was founded upon.

It shouldn't be hard to believe large corporations would take advantage of a crisis to betray Americans' trust. But the tech sector was supposed to different, one of the most visible enduring symbols of the American dream, now that home ownership, college education and job security don't hold up. It's called high tech, after all, not big tech. The executives must be getting high at Googleplex, though, if they don't understand that they have handed the American political establishment a huge opportunity to cut the Silicon Valley down to size.

A showdown in Washington, DC is inevitable. A recent Consumer Watchdog poll found that more than 8 in 10 Americans support strong online privacy protections, such as a "make me anonymous" button and a "do not track me" list. Make no mistake, privacy and net neutrality are next up on the Capitol stage. Americans will either win freedoms they have taken for granted back, or curse yet another big industry that uses its economic might and the rationale that all reform is a "job killer" to protect itself at Americans' expense. Such is the plight of the middle class today.

Privacy and net neutrality are nearly perfect issues for the middle class to strike back at big tech for its latest betrayals because of the overwhelming support of public opinion for online privacy and net neutrality rights. A good start is signing a petition to the FCC to use its power to stop the latest Google betrayal in its tracks and keep the Internet a freeway. If there's one thing middle class America needs now, it's a quick and solid victory. Online rights are an opportunity for Washington to give us all a little piece of the American dream back.