An editorial from the Lawrence Journal-World:

Imagine if Alexander Graham Bell had another idea when he invented the telephone: Third parties could listen in on the phone calls and use the information from your conversations to sell you other goods and services.

Such activity today would be illegal in America, and if the telephone companies tried to change the law, privacy advocates would be wild with rage. It is hard to even fathom that such a proposal would gain support from either end of the political spectrum.

And yet, America has a huge industry that is allowed to use very similar practices. Of course, we are talking about Google and Facebook. Everybody, it seems, is talking about those two tech Titans and various spinoffs such as Instagram and YouTube. The companies are now under investigation by the federal government and nearly every state’s attorney general.

Much of the focus has been on whether the companies are too big and need to be broken up to promote more competition and compliance with antitrust laws aimed at preventing monopolies.

To focus on the size of the companies, though, is the wrong approach. Focus on their practices.

It seems wiser for government regulators to start with some basic matters of privacy and process.

Is a telephone provider allowed to keep track of who you call, then sell that list to others who then use it to try to sell you goods and services? No. Then why should a company like Google be allowed to keep track of what websites you visit and use that information to sell you goods and services?

Is a telephone company allowed to listen in on your phone calls, keeping track of key words in hopes of gleaning information that will be useful in selling you a good or service? No. Then why should email providers — or more often app companies that pay email providers for access — be allowed to monitor your personal emails for keywords that they use to advertise goods and services to you?

Federal regulation could put an end to both of these practices.