Monday, April 3, 2017

Your Fear Over The Internet Privacy Roll Backs Is Unfounded

I see a lot of people on my Facebook feed decrying Trump's recent rollback of an Obama-era law that placed restrictions on ISPs selling your aggregate browsing data. People are up in arms and are declaring that they are going to start surfing via VPN (usually without knowing what VPN is). The more bold folks on my feed are trying to pool money together in order to buy and publish the browsing histories of their Senators and Representatives. Trouble is, these people have no understanding of what the old law did or what the new law (that rolls back the old law) does.

At issue here is the ability for ISPs to use your browsing data to send you targeted ads. This is something Facebook and Google already do to you, which is why you often see ads on Facebook and in Google for things you have searched for on Amazon or other shopping sites. ISPs take this one step further by selling your browsing data (top level domains only, they don't sell the actual pages you look at on a site) in an anonymous form bundled with thousands of other users' browsing data from similar demographics. Then, a company can essentially ask an ISP to target ads for their product to people who have visited certain domains who fit certain demographic characteristics. In the waning days of the Obama administration, the FCC issued a rule (not a law) that would have required ISPs to get their customers' permission in order to do this. The FCC gained the ability to enforce this rule due to their re-classification of ISPs as common carriers under Net Neutrality.

That law that Congress passed and Trump signed effectively blocked the FCC rule. And here's the real kicker: The FCC rule hadn't even gone into effect yet. This means that nothing regarding the way you use the Internet is changing. There's no reason to be up in arms over this if you hadn't been before the FCC issued the rule. Your ISP will still be selling aggregate data, which they have already been doing for quite some time. There are still laws in place that prevent your own personal information to be tied to your aggregate browsing information. This means that nobody can go to an ISP and purchase someone's browsing history. The best you could do is purchase anonymous aggregate browsing data in bulk that fits certain criteria. So, if you wanted your Senator's browsing data, the best you could do would be to find out his zip code and purchase the aggregate data pertaining to people who live in the same area. And even if you could do that, publishing that data online would be illegal as it would probably be considered proprietary information owned by the ISP that collected and indexed it.

That's not to say that the blocking of the FCC law isn't concerning. It is. Data targeting is huge and advertisers are pumping tons of money into it. That may not seem like a bad thing on the surface. If you're going to see an ad, I'd wager that you'd rather see one that is relevant to you rather than something completely out of left field. Yet, the unexpected side-effect of this data targeting stems from the money that is generated by it. Content is monetized by it and so content providers are increasingly desperate to earn that ad revenue by getting you to visit their site  so that they can get paid for showing you targeted ads. This has led to a saturation of click-bait titles and outright fake stories generated by content providers in order to grab your attention, get you to visit their site, and get paid for showing you some targeted ads. Rather than using the Internet as a repository of information, we're using it as a repository of infotainment. The Internet has become the TV equivalent of "Fox & Friends" or "Inside Edition". Giving customers the ability to opt out of having their data sold like this could have started to push back against the constant din of websites crying out for attention in tabloid headline fashion.

The irony here is that everyone is up-in-arms over the new law, but are upset for a completely made up reason, one that they likely got wind of via a click-bait article with targeted ads embedded within it.

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