“We don’t solve problems by misrepresenting what the real scenario is. It’s true that ISPs have way too much power over these markets, and they can see and collect a ton of information on you which can absolutely be misused in privacy-damaging ways. But let’s at least be honest about how it’s happening and what it means. That’s the only way we’re going to see real solutions to these issues.”
—–Mike Masnick on Techdirt on the ignorance of supporters, critics, and the public regarding consumer broadband privacy protections, which were just repealed by straight party line votes in Congress, as part of the Congressional Review Act, which allows the legislative branch to eliminate regulations and limits an agency’s ability to issue similar rules to the ones being struck down. President Trump is expected to sign the bill.
I can see both sides of the Internet “privacy” debate. All I ask is that the average screaming head on TV knows what she’s talking about, and that the news media try to educate citizens on the issue, not portray it as another Obama did it so it’s wonderful, Trump is overturning it, so it’s the end of the world. This morning I watched Morning News Babe Robin Meade roll her eyes while “describing’ what the bill does completely inaccurately. The bill, her unhappy face broadcast is baaaad like everything the Trump Administration and Republicans do is baaaaad. Then she explained that the bill would allow internet service providers, browsers and “search engines” to take your internet history and sell it to big corporations. Then she giggled about how Max Temkin, inventor of some card game* I have never heard of, promised in a tweet…
“If this shit passes I will buy the browser history of every congressman and congressional aide and publish it.”
Robin, not having the foggiest idea what the bill really did, thought this was so funny and cool. She did not inform her audience, some of whom were actually seeking reliable information and not just tuning in to ogle, that..
- The bill only undoes the Obama FCC regulations that stopped ISPs from gathering data on its customers’ internet use, and they hadn’t taken effect yet. In other words, it changes nothing.
- Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other browsers and internet services still can gather anything they get their grubby cyber paws on. The FCC doesn’t regulate them.
- As Masnick explains, neither Temkin nor anyone else can buy individual web-use data:
You can’t buy Congress’ internet data. You can’t buy my internet data. You can’t buy your internet data. That’s not how this works. It’s a common misconception. We even saw this in Congress four years ago, where Rep. Louis Gohmert went on a smug but totally ignorant rant, asking why Google won’t sell the government all the data it has on people. As we explained at the time, that’s not how it works*. Advertisers aren’t buying your browsing data, and ISPs and other internet companies aren’t selling your data in a neat little package. It doesn’t help anyone to blatantly misrepresent what’s going on.
When ISPs or online services have your data and “sell” it, it doesn’t mean that you can go to, say, AT&T and offer to buy “all of Louis Gohmert’s browsing history.” Instead, what happens is that these companies collect that data for themselves and then sell targeting. That is, when Gohmert goes to visit his favorite publication, that website will cast out to various marketplaces for bids on what ads to show. Thanks to information tracking, it may throw up some demographic and interest data to the marketplace. So, it may say that it has a page being viewed by a male from Texas, who was recently visiting webpages about boardgames and cow farming (to randomly choose some items). Then, from that marketplace, some advertisers’ computerized algorithms will more or less say “well, I’m selling boardgames about cows in Texas, and therefore, this person’s attention is worth 1/10th of a penny more to me than some other company that’s selling boardgames about moose.” And then the webpage will display the ad about cow boardgames. All this happens in a split second, before the page has fully loaded.
At no point does the ad exchange or any of the advertisers know that this is “Louis Gohmert, Congressional Rep.” Nor do they get any other info. They just know that if they are willing to spend the required amount to get the ad shown via the marketplace bidding mechanism, it will show up in front of someone who is somewhat more likely to be interested in the content.
Got that, Robin?
It’s not just Robin, of course. At MSNBC, the reliably risible Joy Reid sent a tweet (above) telling everyone that the bill meant that they should delete their browsing history hourly, which Masnick properly finds appalling:
“That’s just… embarrassingly uninformed, to the same level as the people insisting you can walk up to Comcast or AT&T and buy Louis Gohmert’s browsing history (or, for that matter, Louis Gohmert’s belief that the government can just buy advertising data to find terrorists).”
It’s not just that Reid is uninformed, however, She is misinforming the public. That’s the opposite of what journalists are supposed to do. It’s unethical, but then it’s designed to make Trump and the Republicans look bad, so it doesn’t count. This is The New York Times Rule, MSNBC application.
There are also multiple crowd funding efforts on the web, like the GoFundMe request for donation to “purchase the data of every Congressperson who voted for SJR34 and to make it publicly available.” This is where ignorance meets fraud: that crowd-funding effort has netted over $30,000 to do something that cannot be done. As with Masnick threat, it also shows how unethical the “resistance” is. Doing this to anyone would be unethical, if it were possible. Golden Rule? What’s that?
Of course, most of the legislators voting for or against the bill aren’t any more astute than Reid, and if they are, they just want to frighten consumers by making the issue something it’s not, like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi before the House vote:
“Your broadband provider knows deeply personal information about you and your family – where you are, what you want to know, every site you visit, and more,” . “They can even track you when you’re surfing in a private browsing mode. You deserve to be able to insist that those intimate details be kept private and secure.”
Actually, they don’t “know” anything of the sort, any more than the local waste management company “knows” what Nancy’s excrement smells like. This information is dumped into Big Data files, and sliced, diced and sold for marketing purposes. Yes, it’s your information, and you may not like a big company using and profiting from it this way. But it is not as if they know anything about you personally, or care.
Here was the GOP bill’s sponsor’s very different explanation of it, as Senator Jeff Flake said in a statement:
“The FCC’s midnight regulation has the potential to limit consumer choice, stifle innovation, and jeopardize data security by destabilizing the internet ecosystem. Passing my resolution is the first step toward restoring a consumer-friendly approach to internet privacy regulation that empowers consumers to make informed choices on if and how their data can be shared. It will not change or lessen existing consumer privacy protections.”
This is half-true and glossed, which is still better than Pelosi’s scaremongering. For there to be consumer choice and competition, there would have to be some motivation for the huge ISPs like Verizon and Comcast to compete. TechDirt, which supports the regulations being squashed, argues,
Congress has intentionally and repeatedly ignored the lack of broadband competition that makes net neutrality, privacy, and other bad behavior possible. Now, as cable’s monopoly over broadband grows faster than ever, ISP-loyal lawmakers are rushing to strip away any and all government oversight of one of the least-liked, and most anti-competitive business sectors in American history. ISPs recently busted for covertly modifying packets to track users, charging an additional fee for privacy, or giving worse customer support based on credit score now have carte blanche to misbehave.
But that’s misleading too, as is TechDirt’s description of the GOP bill as caving to lobbyist money. You don’t think lobbying from Google et al., so they would be the only ones who could amass browsing data wasn’t behind those FCC rules eliminating the ability of ISP’s to do the same? Smaller ISPs also wanted their big competitors to be hobbled. Republicans, and President Trump, believe that in the end, less regulation means more jobs and a healthier economy. Democrats believe that businesses should be regulated, and the market be damned. Who’s right in this case? I’m not sure, but I do know that not one voter in a hundred understands this issue. I also know that elections have consequences.
Then there is this continuing misconception, encapsulated by a still cited 2014 cautionary study by the Pew Research Center that concluded that the majority of net-neutrality experts agreed that expectations of digital privacy may be completely gone by 2025. In 2017, we should know that expectations of digital privacy should be gone NOW. Democrats especially should understand this: ask John Podesta. Ask Hillary Clinton. Heck, ask FBI Director James Comey, who foolishly thought he could maintain a secret Twitter account, which was ferreted out and revealed yesterday.
To sum up this mess, ethics and otherwise: The news media is misinforming the public and merely taking partisan positions while repeating talking points; lawmakers are misrepresenting the issue and the bill from both sides of the aisle; the tech sector is generally anti-business, and has its own biased spin, all sides of the issue are driven by financial self-interest, and the public is largely confused and ignorant, which is part of the plan.
The key points are these, which are being completely obscured in all the posturing and spin:
1. Neither the Obama regulations nor the Republican removal of them have much to do with personal “privacy.”
2. If you want to ensure personal privacy, don’t use the internet. Any law, regulation, politician or journalist who causes you to think otherwise is misleading you.
* In the first version of the post, I called it a web game, another bit of misinformation I acquired from Robin’s blathering. (Thanks to Neil Dorr for the correction). Either way, George S. Kaufman’s comment applies.
Pointer: HLN, Amy Alkon