Online privacy: Telecoms mining your search history
“What if your telecom company tracked the websites you visit, the apps you use, the TV shows you watch, the stores you shop at, and the restaurants you eat at, and then sold that information to advertisers?” asked Jack Marshall in The Wall Street Journal. Thanks to Congress, AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast can now do just that. The House of Representatives voted last week to dismantle strict online privacy rules set up by the Obama administration that would have required internet service providers to get customers’ permission before selling their data to third parties. The legislation, which President Trump signed into law this week, is a huge boon to the major telecoms, which hope to build billion-dollar online ad businesses to rival those of Facebook and Google.
If those Silicon Valley giants can turn data into profit, “the logic goes, why can’t the cable companies?” said Klint Finley in Wired.com. It’s a decent pitch, but it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. The telecoms have a huge advantage, since they provide both wired and wireless networks—seeing nearly everything a user is doing on the web from multiple devices. They’re also already squeezing money from us in the form of monthly bills. It’s understood and accepted that we give up some personal data and privacy in order to use Facebook and Google for “free,” but “there’s no built-in expectation that your providers will ‘double dip’ by selling your data and collecting advertising fees.” To be honest, this brouhaha feels like “shouting at the horse to come back long after he’s left the barn,” said Stephen Carter in Bloomberg.com. Why is it disturbing that Verizon and AT&T suddenly want to act like Google and Facebook? We traded away our online privacy long ago.
For now, “you probably won’t notice any difference,” said Brian Chen in The New York Times. The rules that Congress overturned were so new that they hadn’t even taken effect yet. But while ISPs have always been able to monitor what websites you visit and then share some of that data with third parties, they are now likely to become much “more aggressive with data collection and retention.” There’s only so much you can do these days to protect your digital data—short of going off the grid, said Timothy Lee in Vox.com. One option is to use a virtual private network, which hides your browsing information from your internet provider, but those can be pricey and hard to set up. And most internet users can’t be bothered with such a complicated work-around. The advantage of the just-overturned rules was that consumers would “get privacy by default.” Now the burden is on us.