ZEITGUIDE TO DATA WARS
What have you been looking at on the internet lately? And who do you want to buy and sell that information?
This week Congress and President Trump rescinded an internet data privacy rule before it could take effect. The rule would have required broadband internet providers such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to get a customer’s permission before selling information on their web browsingand other tracking data.
The rollback inflamed consumer advocacy groups, the tech industry and editorial writers on the left and right. But the GOP-controlled Congress felt broadband companies were being held to a higher privacy standard than web companies like Google and Facebook. Privacy advocates contend that’s comparing apples and oranges: Anyone can choose not to be on Facebook, but if you want to communicate at all in 2017, you’re stuck with some kind of internet provider.
Broadband companies already know what you’re downloading, what apps you use, what web sites you look at and even where you go based on mobile device geo-locating data. In other words, they don’t just know that you’re reading The Onion, not The New Yorker — they also know if you’re at the gym or the gynecologist’s office.
But AT&T et. al. hadn’t gotten around to monetizing that data yet. Now, with the privacy/permission rule axed, it’ll be that much easier to do so. Such data is the basis for highly targeted display advertising on web sites, social media and mobile devices — called programmatic ads. The booming market for programmatic advertising is expected to be worth more than $31 billion in 2017.
“The only people in the United States who want less Internet privacy are CEOs and lobbyists for giant telecom companies, who want to rake in money by spying on all of us and selling the private details of our lives to marketing companies,” says Evan Greer, campaign director for the Internet activism group Fight for the Future.
Most Americans agree. Surveys by the Pew Research Center find that:
- 65% say it is “very important” to control what information about them gets collected;
- 74% say it is “very important” to control who can get that information; and
- 86% of internet users have tried to remove or mask their digital footprints in some way.
For now, the telecom giants say they are voluntarily not selling individual internet browsing information, but will be aggregating it for their own advertising programs or to sell insights to other businesses.
For supporters of consumer rights, this is just a precursor to the next consequential battle: net neutrality rules. Under those rules, broadband internet providers can’t set higher speeds for preferred content, or charge extra fees to content providers that take up more bandwidth, such as Netflix.
New FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is developing plans to rollback Obama-era net neutrality rules. Expect an overhaul — and given what happened this week — possibly a lot more outrage.