Jeff Flake's wildly unpopular decision to sponsor a bill repealing the Federal Communications Commission's rules for broadband privacy is coming back to haunt him.
This week, a billboard splashed with Flake's face and office phone number appeared at I-10 and Baseline Road in Phoenix. It points out that Flake accepted more than $185,000 in campaign donations from telecom companies over the course of his career, before voting in March to let them sell users' browsing history without permission.
The billboard was paid for by a crowdfunding campaign organized by Fight for the Future, a nonprofit group that advocates for internet freedom and online privacy.
In a statement, Fight for the Future co-founder Tiffany Cheng calls Congress's vote to repeal broadband privacy guidelines "one of the most blatant displays of corruption in recent history.”
Flake isn't the only lawmaker targeted: the group also paid for billboards calling out Martha Blackburn (R-Tennessee,) Dean Heller (R-Nevada,) and John Rutherford (R-Florida) in their home states, just in time for the congressional recess.
Obviously, those four aren't the only ones responsible for the bill's success. The Verge has a list of all 265 Republicans in Congress and the Senate who voted to pass it, along with how much money they received in campaign contributions from telecom companies during the last election cycle.
"Senator Flake was the sponsor of SJ Res 34, so he was a natural target for our first round of billboards, since he did perhaps more than any other member of Congress to sell off his constituents' right to use the internet safely and securely," Evan Greer, Fight for the Future's campaign director, explains.
"The other lawmakers that we targeted were ones that had taken large amounts of money from the telecom industry. Rutherford was picked because there were constituents in his district that were particularly upset and wanted to help make a billboard happen there, and we wanted to make sure that every member of Congress knew that they could be targeted if they vote against their constituents' interests."
The bill repealing broadband privacy protections sparked immediate outrage when it passed back in March. Several crowdfunding campaigns quickly appeared on GoFundMe, claiming that donations would be used to buy legislators' browsing history.
Unfortunately, that's not quite how it works. As TechCrunch explained:
Private individuals can’t just waltz in, slam their money on a table (what table??) and demand targeted, de-anonymized internet data on individual users, successful GoFundMe campaign or not. Sure, advertisers can buy web user data, but that’s generally done in aggregate, and they have existing relationships that let them broker these kind of deals to begin with, sketchy as they may be.
So, in other words, don't expect to see Flake's browsing history up on a billboard anytime soon. But it's clear that his decision to introduce this particular piece of legislation has angered a lot of people, and won't be forgotten anytime soon.
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Flake, meanwhile, is sticking to his guns. If you're wondering how anyone could possibly defend selling people's private browsing history, then we suggest that you read the convoluted explanation that he wrote for Phoenix New Times here.
Update: Flake's press office responds:
“The billboard’s message is disingenuous considering the rule had not even gone into effect before it was repealed. It’s flat-out inaccurate to imply that anyone’s online privacy protections have changed, much less been compromised. The privacy protections internet users had before the rule are the same privacy protections they have today.”