The creator of the game "Cards Against Humanity" warns that even if he's able to buy Congress' Internet browsing history, it will be "a symbolic victory at best"

By Tierney McAfee
March 30, 2017 05:59 PM
video gaming
Credit: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty

One day before Congress voted on whether to allow Internet service providers (also known as ISPs) to sell customer data, the creator of the irreverent hit game “Cards Against Humanity” issued a strong warning on Twitter.

“If this sh*t passes I will buy the browser history of every congressman and congressional aide and publish it,” Max Temkin tweeted of the legislation on Monday, “CCing” House Speaker Paul Ryan.

House Republicans didn’t listen.

On Tuesday, the House voted along party lines to undo landmark Internet privacy protections approved by the Federal Communications Commission in the final days of the Obama administration. The rules, which had not yet been put into effect, would have required ISPs to ask customers’ permission before collecting and sharing data on their web browsing history, app usage and geo-location.

All that remains now is for President Donald Trump to sign the resolution, which the White House said Tuesday it “strongly supports.”

As outrage over the controversial vote grows among privacy advocates, consumer groups and the tech community, the question on many minds now is: Can Temkin make good on his promise to publish Congress’ browser history?

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According to The Verge, a tech news website run by Vox Media, the Telecommunications Act would prohibit Temkin or anyone else from buying Congress members’ web history. The 1996 law bans the sharing of “individually identifiable” information.

“If you’re paying Verizon to find out which sites Paul Ryan visited last month, that’s pretty clearly individual information, and pretty clearly illegal to sell,” The Verge‘s Russell Brandom wrote.

The site also referenced another obstacle in the Wiretap Act, which “makes it illegal to divulge the contents of electronic communications without the parties’ consent, which arguably includes browsing history.”

Temkin addressed this in a Reddit post on Wednesday, suggesting that the new bill, if passed, could potentially make it easier for him to obtain such data.

“We don’t know if there will be any data to buy, how it will work, or what will be available,” he wrote, also warning interested parties to be “very skeptical of any GoFundMe projects to buy this data.”

“They are making promises they can’t possibly keep,” he said.

“If and when any data becomes available, myself and Cards Against Humanity will do whatever we can do acquire it and publish it,” he continued. “We have a long track record of activism and spending around government transparency issues.”

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“This may take a long time. We may have to file FOIA requests. We may have to buy browsing data for Congressional office building ZIP codes and then p-hack our way to statistical significance in an attempt to fish spurious correlations out of unreliable datasets, but we’ve done it before.” (P-hacking is the process of mining data for statistically significant patterns, without first coming up with a specific hypothesis.)

But Temkin warned that even if Cards Against Humanity is able to buy the data, “it’s a symbolic victory at best.”

“Our basic human rights, like the right to privacy, are being sold to the highest bidder while the best minds of our generation are here on Reddit asking pro gamers if they want to fight a horse-sized duck or whatever,” he said, urging people who want to combat the bill to reach out to their local congressperson or donate to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a donor-supported organization working to protect digital privacy and free expression.

Temkin, who says Cards Against Humanity has donated more than a million dollars to the EFF and the Sunlight Foundation (a self-described “nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for open government”), promised to match donations up to $10,000 to EFF.

The public may never know Paul Ryan’s browsing history or Democratic Rep. Michael Capuano’s underwear size, but for now, here’s The Verge‘s list of all the representatives who voted for the bill — and how much money they’ve taken from the bill’s lobbyists.