When the US House of Representatives voted Tuesday to remove the FCC’s online privacy protections (that aren’t in effect yet; they were scheduled to start this summer), I imagine a majority of news readers struggled to care or understand what the implications of this change would mean to our day-to-day technology habits. Yes, the vote means less privacy, but what does that privacy even mean? The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a “501(c)(3) tax exempt, educational institute” out of Washington D.C. soon after published an article titled “Six Reasons FCC Rules Aren’t Needed to Protect Privacy”. This post panders a variety of myths about privacy and technology use that I would like to slay all day. Since I’ve got other things to do, here are five myths I’ve singled out.
Myth one: The content of your data is so so safe; your service provider will collect only metadata.
Metadata can tell as descriptive of a story as the content of your internet activity. For example, through looking at the source code of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s About page, I was able to discover the following content inside metadata tags. It would depend on the algorithms used by internet providers as to whether the following descriptive information would be coded as metadata (which it is) or content (which it also is):
“<meta property=”og:description” content=”The Competitive Enterprise Institute is a non-profit public policy organization dedicated to advancing the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty. Our mission is to promote both freedom and fairness by making good policy good politics. We make the uncompromising case for economic freedom because we believe it is essential for entrepreneurship, innovation, and prosperity to flourish.” />”
Metadata is not black and white and it certainly has identifying and lucrative information. Otherwise internet providers wouldn’t want to sell it.
Myth 2: Data bundled “on an aggregate basis that does not individually identify any customers” protects your individual identity.
Just because your name is protected doesn’t mean it, and other very personal information, can’t be found in an instant using other data points. Your email address, occupation, online petitions you’ve signed, and IP address (Information scientist Zeynep Tufekci calls these “digital crumbs”) are all examples of data points that can be used to easily infer other information you would rather keep quiet. These data points, taken together, can infer with startling accuracy your sexual orientation, if you have a criminal record, and if you suffer from depression. And the algorithms making these predictions are sometimes not even understood by the developers creating them which is more than creepy. I encourage you to watch or read Tufekci’s TedTalk on machine learning to learn more.
Myth 3: There is a fair and healthy marketplace for users to seek out internet service providers that fit their needs/privacy concerns.
This is a myth in multiple ways but first and foremost because of a lack of information. If there was a fair and healthy marketplace for internet access a key component would be access to information regarding that market. It is difficult to measure broadband competition because companies are very reluctant to disclose specifics on access and cost. I am very curious where the author found their data on internet access given they provide no citations and the only comprehensive broadband maps have been products of government agencies (including the FCC and US Department of Commerce). But these maps list amounts of providers; not identifying information on each provider. We have no way of verifying what percentage of those providers have plans with contracts that protect consumer privacy more conservatively than known personal data misusers like AT&T and Comcast.
Myth 4: Internet access is a choice.
Our use of the internet is constant. For those of us with smart phones, our devices are constantly connected or attempting to connect to a wireless network as we move throughout the world. Even if we have the privilege to choose our home internet provider we are often not using those networks while we’re at work, at school, or on the bus.
Our use of the internet is also not optional. It is difficult to find a way of life in this country that is not reliant on internet access and use. We are a captive market to a product that we all need but that few of us understand. Consumers are vulnerable to abuses by internet providers. We need public service organizations that have resources, expertise, funding, and power to protect and act for consumers’ best interests.
Myth 5: It’s more efficient for private citizens and the press to report wrong-doing by internet providers through litigation.
The Cable Communications Privacy Act, since its passing in 1984, has been used for exactly zero enforcement actions despite regular complaints filed by watchdog groups like Public Knowledge, Inc. Policy that depends on individual reaction for the enforcement of corporate responsibility burdens citizens who neither understand or wish to spend time and money fighting Goliath and his lawyers on lawyers on lawyers.