Thanks to Congress, ISPs Are Watching You. It sounds like a bad Hall & Oates song. (Are there good Hall & Oates songs??)
A crony Congress has “officially” allowed internet and mobile providers to sell consumer data. Something no human has ever asked for. The truth is – this law is just a formality. This ship left harbor long ago. I’ve personally advised companies that use similar data from telcos. Cable and cell phone companies have entire departments dedicated to monetizing data. But there’s no need to panic about that Wookie fetish site in your browser history. In fact, I think ISPs and Congress just gave us the greatest gift of all.
From a strategy perspective, my position is clear. In an article titled, “Never Sell Data” I explained the huge downside to selling data – for most businesses. But there were three exceptions. The first is:
Your company (or division) is explicitly in the data business. This comes with the expectation that data will change hands. Plus in most cases, data brokers operate behind a curtain without a public brand to maintain. The reputation risk is entirely with the buyers and sellers.
Providers, like cell phone companies, mainly benefit from showing ads to millions or selling aggregate data in bulk. Retailers and product companies crave more. Countless tests show how easy it is to de-anonymize any data set – ad trackers, shopping/surfing histories, apps, etc. That can sell a lot of diapers. (Not to me…yet.)
That’s great for these companies, but what about citizens?
There is a checks and balances system. EVERY COMPANY faces reputation risk. Even monopolies. But they can afford to respond slower since they mainly face pressure from citizens, not competitors. Unfortunately, large fragmented groups take forever to organize.
In my definitive guide on America’s shift towards monopolies (sign up to mailing list if not posted yet). Monopolies can only exist because of us – via regulation and access to public resources (airwaves, land, subsidies). So it’s ironic they’re now using these fortunes to buy off the representatives of the very people who gave them life. It’s like dividing by zero in Excel.
So why am I optimistic?
Why Congress & ISPs Gave Us A MASSIVE Gift
By loudly favoring monopolies over citizens, Congress just served America a wake-up call. OK, yet another wake-up call. That they do not work for the people. And it’s going to have spectacular benefits:
- It’s already fueling a massive public outcry for government accountability.
- It’s educating people, who’ve grown complacent. They’re learning what’s being tracked (everything) and how far their interests are from corporate ones. Whether it’s ISP’s, Google, social networks or countless intermediaries.
- It’ll help fund and spread new privacy tools. Even open the door to new competition, some based in countries with strong privacy laws, like Switzerland and Germany.
So what do we do now?
The ideas I’ve heard fall into three categories; bad, temporary, and legit. Here’s my breakdown.
Threatening to buy & publicize Congress’s browsing histories to shame them for selling out its citizens. The idea sounds good, but executives at these companies likely have privacy blocks set up for their IP addresses. They’ll do the same for their cronies in Congress. They know where their bread is buttered. Plus, I don’t think it will be that easy to get. ISP’s will only be dealing huge pools of user data to institutional buyers, like ad agencies. They’re not doing business with some guy who shows up with a briefcase full of cash and a list of IP addresses.
‘Anonymous’ hackers hacking of Congress. No one should be rooting for that. If ‘white hat’ hackers can get the data, so can black hat, only faster. Though the chances of hacking improve the more third parties have access to our data. Realistically, they already have it. This law won’t change anything.
There are lots of columns about steps you can take to protect yourself. You should, but realize it’s a cat and mouse game. Individuals can never stay ahead of driven, profit-seeking behemoths with a financial stake in crushing our rinky-dink browser plugins. Plus, we don’t always know exactly which channels are truly secure. Ghostery, Ublock Origin, VPN’s, proxies, and TOR all have their pros and cons. And as more traffic moves to mobile, most of those tools are unavailable or impotent.
The real solution is civic action. It is the only real counterweight to monopoly power or government corruption. I’m sure there are lots of great organizations working on consumer privacy, but I suggest concentrating our efforts for maximum bang for the buck. In this case, the clear choice is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Join, follow their guidance, and contribute if you can.
Related read: Defending Your Money