Invest in Better Digital Privacy Protection Along With Faster Broadband Speeds

Among the key provisions of the trillion-dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (aka the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal) signed into law by President Joe Biden on Monday, Nov. 15, is $65 billion that will be dedicated to improving access to reliable high-speed Internet.  This will include both increased availability of broadband to more than 30 million Americans who do not have minimally acceptable broadband speeds, and assistance in lowering prices for Internet services so that more households can afford better Internet service.

This new law aimed at closing the digital divide also should be used to close the digital privacy divide – the gap between more personal information being stored and shared and the level of privacy protection for online users that is provided to them.

Dedicated funding for enhanced broadband network availability should be coupled with a greater focus on digital privacy protection.  If new requirements for those seeking grants under the new broadband funding program are established, it would go a long way toward providing a necessary link between massive network expansion and digital privacy protection.

For example, grant applicants should be required to detail data security measures they will build into their technical plans for broadband, and funding preference should be accorded to those who can design better privacy-enhanced networks.  Funding applicants also should be required to provide downloadable and continuously updated security software for any home device that connects to a newly installed broadband network.

Any of these requirements, however, will require clear guidelines to be conveyed as the broadband funding programs roll out in the coming months.  These guidelines would help stimulate innovation among applicants to produce more holistic broadband network expansion plans, too.

Given the unprecedented amount of money for broadband expansion that now is firmly allocated, we have a tangible opportunity to provide vital online capabilities more equitably to unserved areas.  At the same time, our nation should enhance the digital privacy of those who live there, in urban and rural areas alike.

And since the best time to capture public attention is when the expanded broadband networks begin service, helping users develop some minimal amount of privacy proficiency, such as how to create and store passwords safely, before the network’s enhanced high-speed capabilities kick in would be enormously beneficial.  Those with little or no knowledge about self-help for potential data vulnerabilities would be well-served by having financial resources directed to broadband providers, who then could provide such digital hygiene training.

The massive national spending on broadband should be welcomed by all.  It will be money even better spent if it also addresses improving digital privacy – vitally important as enhanced service becomes a reality for so many who have waited so long for it.

Stuart N. Brotman is a Distinguished Fellow at The Media Institute and is a member of the Institute’s First Amendment Advisory Council.   He is the author of Privacy’s Perfect Storm: Digital Policy for Post-Pandemic Times.  This article appeared in The Tennessean.