As Trump signs away Americans' digital privacy, it's time to bring out the BS detector
Claim and counter-claim: What is the real deal?
Simple question: Who do you trust?
Where you stand on the issue can be determined by answering this simple question: do you trust companies to do what they say, or do you believe they will do whatever they can get away with in order to make more profit?
If you believe the former, then the claims by Comcast and AT&T and the very carefully worded "myth versus reality" document put out by The Internet & Television Association (NCTA) trade association that they would never do such a thing as sell personal data will no doubt provide you some comfort and sufficient "evidence" to ignore the other side.
If you don't trust corporations and think they will do anything for a buck, then the fact that there is now literally no regulatory backstop will fill you with dread and have you running quickly to set up your own secure VPN.
At The Register, on the question of trusting corporations, we fall down on the "don't trust" side, mostly out of experience and cynicism from years of tech, business and legal reporting. And we would also promote the view of Republican godhead Ronald Reagan when he quoted a Russian proverb: Trust, but verify.
The big issue with the removal of the FCC rules is that there is no one to verify that the ISPs will do what they say they will do. And there is no one to punish them if they don't.
So, with all that in mind, a quick list:
- From the NCTA: "Congress's repeal of the FCC's misguided rules will not allow ISPs to sell sensitive data to the highest bidder without their customers' knowledge or consent." BULLSHIT. Yes, they will. There is nothing to stop big broadband providers from doing so beyond a series of vague "principles" that the ISPs have voluntarily signed up to. There is nothing to stop those ISPs from redefining those principles at any time. And, critically, ISPs will not be obliged to tell anyone they have done so. There is also no way to punish ISPs if they break their own principles.
- From Comcast and AT&T: They already let you opt-out of having your data sold and will continue to do so. HALF TRUE, HALF BULLSHIT. Yes, you can opt-out of some uses of your data. If you can find the right link (Comcast appears to have two). But even if you do that, your ISPs can still sell other forms of data on you, and it claims it can't do anything about third parties also gathering your data through your ISP's connection. Comcast's privacy policies, as an example, are very lengthy and make it plain how much your ISP gathers about you. But note this – Comcast informs you: "Even if you opt out, you will still receive advertising and we will continue to send you Comcast marketing messages based on the way you use our products and services and the information we have collected about you."
- From numerous Republican Congressmen: The FTC's privacy rules will still apply and can be used to prevent abuse of data by ISPs. BULLSHIT. No they can't.
- From Republican Congressmen and policy wonks: Section 222 of the Communications Act still applies and will prevent ISPs from mishandling customer data. HIGHLY DEBATABLE/BULLSHIT. This section was used as the foundation for the FCC rules that Congress has just voted against. As such, it is very uncertain that it could be used against ISPs. Even if it were possible, the fact is that the current FCC chair has repeatedly said he is opposed to the sort of proactive regulation that has used Section 222 in the past. It is possible, though unlikely, that the FCC could come down on ISPs on a case-by-case basis. But the reality is that it is open season on customer data for ISPs.
At the end of the day, the reality is this: ISPs can now, very easily and without fear of being discovered or fined, sell their users' personal data. And it is worth billions of dollars to them if they do so.
The real argument, put forward dozens of times by politicians and FCC commissioners in recent weeks, is that there is not a "level playing field" and some have even given up the pretense and named Google and Facebook as being the companies that ISPs mean when they complain about different rules for different companies.
Facebook and Google make tens of billions of dollars from selling ads using the targeted user data they possess. And ISPs want some of that money. But here's the difference: Gmail is free, Google Search is free; Facebook is free.
They offer services, for no cost, that ride on top of your internet connection. You don't have to use their services. There are literally dozens of other email providers and search engines and social media platforms.
ISPs, however, charge you for your internet access – and they charge a lot. And there is very limited competition. If Facebook started charging people $25 a month for its service, it would be dead within a year. If Google charged you 10 cents for every search, Bing would steal the market within weeks. But ISPs want their cake and they want to eat it.
Money talks, incessantly
If ISPs genuinely didn't want the opportunity to make billions of dollars selling their users' data, then why did Big Cable flood Congress with its lobbyists arguing for exactly that to happen?
It may also be worth noting that the telecom industry is the 10th-largest-spending industry in terms of lobbying, putting no less than $87.6m into Washington, DC, in 2016. The "Telephone Utilities" put in an additional $35.7m.
Last year, AT&T was the 9th-largest lobbying company in the country, spending $16.3m. Comcast came 12th with $14.3m. And that's just in official lobbying spend.
While many love to personalize issues such as this and flag up the enormous additional funds that Big Cable has spent on giving to the campaigns of Congressman, the sad truth is that Washington has become so corrupted by money that there is no clear line between contributions and votes.
What contributions get companies is a foot in the door and a meeting with the legislator. Then it's up to the lobbyists to make sure that their company's version of events is heard loud and clear and as many times as possible.
And that is exactly what happened in the case of getting rid of the FCC's data privacy rules: the bullshit was spread so thick and so wide that it swamped reasoned debate and analysis. The bullshit detector's alarm became so persistent that people started ignoring it altogether.
At least within the Washington, DC, bubble. The tech media and the late-night TV shows are having none of it. But then, as you will have noticed, only politicians get to vote in Congress. ®