Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, speaks during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., in March. Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
So regarding online privacy, for all practical purposes, absolutely nothing has changed.
What about the new rule?
On April 3, the president signed S.J.Res.34, a joint resolution that nullifies the FCC’s “Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services” rule. But that FCC rule never went into effect. So net-net, nothing has changed.
One side will tell you that the FCC rule was overly burdensome for ISPs because they would have had to obtain opt-in permission from each customer to use the customers’ data. The other side will tell you that the FCC rule was absolutely necessary because ISPs have access to 100% of your online activity, while FANG can only see what you do on their respective sites.
Most of the explanations from elected leaders failed to mention that you pay your ISP for access to the internet. Therefore, you would expect some privacy options, even if those options were offered at a premium price.
In the short term, all of this is meaningless. ISPs don’t make money selling your data — although they could — and most of them do not yet have an effective way to sell advertising. They make money by charging you for internet access. FANG literally lives on your data. Without it, FANG would be severely disabled. But you already grant them the rights, so nothing has changed.
In a data-deregulated environment, ISPs are free to develop all kinds of new capabilities as the technologies become practical. We might see “intelligence layers” between us and the networks. Hypothetically, this type of AI would know where you are, where you are likely to be, what you like to do, when you like to do it, etc. In practice, it would be used to sell you stuff. It could also be useful for autonomous vehicles and IoT applications. But, as with all things, there’s a dark side. Thinking about potential abuses of this type of data-driven AI should give one pause.
Should we have internet privacy laws?
Should we have internet privacy laws? What should we protect? Are privacy laws antithetical to a free and open internet? Or would a well-reasoned set of privacy rules provide a level playing field and fertile ground for commerce and communication? Under the Trump administration, it looks like whatever laws are in place will remain in place, but that whatever proposals can be nullified are fair game. For those who supported the previous administration’s worldview, it’s time for a new strategy.
Bigger topics, and what you can do
There’s more at stake here than online privacy. The concepts of net neutrality, a free and open internet and a set of reasonable rules that promote investments and reward investors are not mutually exclusive. We should strive for consensus. Regardless of your personal preferences, you should contact your elected officials and let them know your thoughts.
When discussing online privacy, remember the internet not only transports your smartphone and web browser data, it also transports your banking data (from bank to bank), your health records (from doctor to hospital), autonomous vehicle data, Internet of Things data, municipal sensor data (such as water meters and weather data), and every other type of data that we create when interacting with today’s digital world.
VPNs, encrypted email
Since the joint resolution passed, I’ve had a remarkable number of questions about Virtual Private Networks and email encryption, as if suddenly there’s a new need for these services. (We’ll discuss online privacy vs. online security in another article. They are not the same thing.)
If you didn’t need a VPN or encrypted email yesterday, you probably don’t need it today. That said, I only access the internet through VPNs, and I encrypt communication that I would not like to see on WikiLeaks.
I do not endorse any of the following products, but I pay for and use some of them. They all work as well as consumer-grade systems can work. If you feel like you will be safer using a VPN or encrypted email, here’s a short list of options:
What we really need
Data is a very valuable asset. How valuable? Have a look at the combined market cap of FANG. They, and most online businesses, transform the value of our data into their wealth. Which raises the question, “Should they own the data we create, or should we? If we create it, shouldn’t it be ours?” I can argue both sides. Perhaps you can too. Let’s start the discussion immediately!
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