Why Broadband Carriers are a Menace to Privacy

Last week we learned that Verizon, a company that primarily sells access to the internet, plans to acquire Yahoo!, a company that primarily sells eyeballs and advertising over the internet. This deal exemplifies why Americans need to fear abuse by broadband internet providers. It also exemplifies why it’s important that the communications privacy laws currently being implemented at the FCC be properly enforced as soon as possible.

The carriers scream, as they did throughout the network neutrality debate, that the law’s basic privacy protections will inhibit “innovation.” But what kind of innovation, exactly, do we as broadband subscribers have to look forward to? Of course we all want innovation in internet services, whether social networks, news, gaming, and entertainment sites, chat and email services, and many other things. But those are services that send data across the internet. What innovations can Verizon bring us in how it delivers our bits that will bring noticeable benefits to citizens? 

I haven’t been able to get a satisfying answer about what this supposed innovation is likely to do for me as a customer—how, exactly, rules requiring carriers to ask my permission before sharing data about who I’m communicating with will block those carriers from providing some sort of great services that are going to make my life better. Remember, they’re already allowed to use our information for network management purposes.

What’s much more likely is that the only “innovations” we’ll see will consist of mischief of various sorts that will help the carriers but not customers —“innovation” in how they can spy on us more and more thoroughly, and make more and more money from doing so. That’s not the kind of innovation that’s going to help me or you, or that policymakers ought to advance.

The broadband companies are watching companies like Google and Facebook make billions from a business model that involves offering useful communications services to the public over the carriers’ internet wires—and eavesdropping on those communications to sell targeted advertising. The carriers would like a piece of the action, but the only way they can get it is by inserting themselves between us and the online sites and services we want to communicate with. And while we can switch from Google or Yahoo if we don’t like their privacy practices, it’s difficult or impossible to switch internet service providers—and if they’re all spying on us, we’ll have even less control.

The fact is, what people want is simple: they want to be able to exchange data with the parties of their choosing. They want clean, simple, fast, cheap internet service. They want Verizon and Comcast to get out of the way, do their job, and deliver their data without messing with it (violating network neutrality), or spying upon it (violating privacy).

The problem for the carriers is that providing such service is a boring, utility-like function that holds little promise to allow carriers to differentiate their products from each other, other than on raw speed, reliability, and customer service. As the Washington Post put it, “traditional telephone and Internet companies are worried that their businesses are being commodified.” Commodification is a very bad word in the world of Wall Street-financed public companies, which are under enormous pressure to produce dynamic new products and innovations that will allow for soaring profits. As a result, the fast, cheap, reliable, boring connectivity that everyone wants is under constant threat from “innovations” by hungry carriers eager to extract additional revenue from customers. You may want simple, fast internet service, but that’s just a “commodity,” so the carriers want to mess with it.

In short, the threat to our internet privacy comes from the hunger of ISPs not to be what they are: utilities.

Verizon’s purchase of Yahoo should be seen as part of this story. Yahoo boasts an enormous range of content and services, and among its many subsidiaries and acquisitions is the advertising system BrightRoll, which boasts of tracking consumers “across devices” with “165 billion data points, across email, search, apps, user registration, content consumption, TV viewing, and mobile analytics.” Yahoo has absorbed a number of advertising companies, including the likes of BlueLithium and interclick, which specialize in analyzing and segmenting the vast amounts of data advertisers have collected about people.

In the end, Yahoo is an advertising and tracking company. So is Verizon’s other recent acquisition, AOL. Combine this focus with the technological ability the carriers have to monitor the internet activities of every customer, and the need for the FCC’s pending privacy protections becomes clearer than ever.

Nor is Verizon at all unique in this quest. Other internet service providers are, as the Center for Digital Democracy points out in a detailed report on ISP practices, incorporating “powerful layers of data collection and digital marketing technologies to better target individuals.” AT&T, for example, runs a division called AdWorks, which seeks to harness big data for ad targeting, while Comcast has bought ad-technology companies Visible World and FreeWheel Media.

One of the arguments that the carriers and their defenders make is that if they could grab additional income by monetizing customer surveillance, they could invest in infrastructure improvements that would benefit everyone, and/or keep rates low. But what guarantee is there that the additional profits that flow to Verizon, AT&T et al will be invested in infrastructure or in keeping prices low for consumers, rather than simply going to increased profits? Given the poor state of competition in broadband services, we can’t rely on competitive pressures to keep prices low. Nor are profits from customer surveillance likely to be sufficient to inspire other companies to invest the considerable capital required to build parallel internet access infrastructures. But even if they were, we should not throw out centuries of special protection for the privacy of communications, when plenty of other countries have found ways to provide faster, cheaper internet to their populations without doing so.

A parallel argument was made by the carriers with regards to competition. As Brenan Greeley of Bloomberg put it in 2014,

ISPs have spent more than a decade arguing the same basic thing.... The utterly consistent position from the ISPs has been this: Guarantee us a higher income stream from a more concentrated market, and we’ll build out new infrastructure to reach more Americans with high-speed Internet. A decade ago, this argument had at least the benefit of being untested.

In the end, Greeley and others show, the ISPs’ argument was false. U.S. broadband penetration slipped from 10th place worldwide in 2002 to 16th place in 2013, despite starting with enormous advantages in terms of existing copper and cable infrastructure penetration.

Today’s online internet advertising ecosystem is bad enough for privacy. To allow its tracking capabilities to be combined with free-floating carrier surveillance of our fundamental communications networks would be a disaster. It’s more important than ever that the FCC enact its privacy rules in strong form to complete the protections begun through the agency’s network neutrality rulemaking.

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Anonymous

Whenever anyone in the Internet environment talks about "innovation", what they mean is marketing and more marketing. Marketing means revenue, and that's all they care about.

Anonymous

Making money can also sometimes trespass onto the constitutional rights of citizens. In that conflict, the U.S. Constitution acts a "restraint" on the trespasser.

Anonymous

It is still wrong. These corporate thugs have been allowed to run rampant for years trampling all over our boundaries and our rights to protect that which rightfully belongs to us-------our very own identities!

Our Personally Identifiable Information should never be allowed to be exploited simply because it can open the door for them to insane amounts of profiteering-------Profit off the expense of our freedom to protect our privacy!-------That is our right and should never ever be intruded upon period!

You can't have real security without privacy. The false argument that one must sacrifice privacy in order to provide security is a complete misnomer. Privacy is intrinsic to the concept of liberty. There is absolutely no reason to infringe upon this aspect of our lives in order to make us feel safe. That is a lie and smoke-screen designed to actually make you more vulnerable so that you continue to give up more and more of your rights.

Make no mistake about, Abraham Lincoln warned the American People over a century ago that the corporations were a menace and that they were going to rob us blind an leave us with nothing. Like a page right out of the history books-------they our taking away our rights, our resources and our peaceful way of life with all this ho-ranging hoopla-------and for what?!-------so they can continue to maximize their profits because they've already been given a free pass to do so for so long?!

That doesn't change the fact that their exploitation of us is still wrong! It is still crossing a boundary-line that should never be crossed. That is why our country is so morally bankrupt right now because we are being sold to advertisers-------and the real price we've paying is with our privacy and with our freedoms.

Shame on these corporate thugs and their oligarchic counterparts!-------Shame on them!-------You are the problem and "We The People" are no longer going to let you continue to enslave us for your own selfish, disgusting and demeaning purposes. You fascist freaks are not going to oppress us any longer. You cannot and will not quell the rising revolution coming upon this world and you will be outnumbered by it's dissenters!

Anonymous

Maybe the "Civil Rights Act" of the 1960's needs to be modernized for the 21st Century to include LGBT rights but also 1st and 4th Amendment rights online?

The Civil Rights Act also applied to private businesses that many times joined in criminal conspiracies with government entities (ex: sheriffs and other local officials). Essentially those private businesses could conspire to create an environment that violated the 14th Amendment and denied freedoms to African-Americans. For example: before the C.R.A. African-American families driving across country were banned from using some public restrooms, some restaurants and some hotels. Many times the black restrooms were out-of-order. If they used the restroom in the woods or slept in their cars they were arrested by the local sheriff.

Are today's telecoms conspiring to create an environment that violates our 1st and 4th Amendment rights? It's nearly impossible to obtain a job, hotel or buy certain products without using email and the Internet. Is it really a choice for most citizens? Most of these companies share our data with government officials without our consent or force us into user contracts, but we have to use their services for basic needs.

It's also easy to blackball and blacklist citizens (without their knowledge) - maybe for the crime of supporting the ACLU or supporting government regulation. Facebook police penalize users all of the time for who knows what.

Let's amend the Civil Rights Act, same concept of "public accommodation" by private companies, just different constitutional rights being violated. There are ample plaintiffs with legal standing harmed by this setup.

Anonymous

Returning to Jimmy Carter era to mostly publicly-funding of election campaigns would be the longterm solution.

Most members of Congress, state legislatures and local government are "employed" by their full-time employer. Today voters are just their part-time gig that most of them pay attention to right before an election, but the full-time employers (campaign contributors) always get first priority over the side job.

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