FCC privacy ruling protects users from ISPs but not Facebook … wait, what?

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The recent decision by the FCC to force ISPs not to harvest and share their customers’ data for profit is, some would say, a great decision (for customers). The additional decision by the FCC not to impose the same rules on digital service providers such as Facebook and Google is a ridiculous decision (also for customers). It also gives rise to a quick question.


Tom Wheeler, the soon to be ex-chairman of the FCC, says that the edge operator can see everything that a customer does online, and this is therefore unfair to the likes of Facebook.

That, dear Mr Wheeler, may technically true, but Facebook and Google survive on advertising. And therefore they are much more likely, in fact are compelled, to harvest and sell your data for their direct marketing purposes. Or suffer the consequences.

There is going to be an almighty battle over whether customers should opt in or opt out when it comes to allowing their ISP to share their data. Research on this, which was aired at the final hearing, shows (not surprisingly) that if customers are automatically included in the sharing and harvesting, then 91% would really not like it. They feel they have already lost control of their personal data. And if customers, by default, have to opt in, then only about 18% would do so. (That many? – Ed.)

Mr Wheeler was the last to speak at the meeting, saying, “It is the consumer’s information, it is not information [belonging to] the network that the consumer hires to deliver that information.”

How true, and yet how weird that he does not see the data harvesting by Facebook et al in the same way.

He also came up with the example of a smart fridge (oh boy) and said of the fridge’s data, “even when that data only goes to the refrigerator owner’s mobile device, it is known by AT&T or Comcast or whoever the ISP is” that consumer subscribes to. “So the ISP knows what goes in and out of a refrigerator!”

Except when the fridge is part of a smart home network managed by Google, Amazon, Apple or whoever. Then those poor digital service providers might just get a peek at what is in the fridge as well as AT&T. In fact, isn’t that the point?

Presumably this kind of restrictive practice will give rise to all kinds of jiggery pokery. AT&T, when (if) it owns Time Warner will make sure that, on the content side, there is a neat Chinese Wall between it and the customer’s data. That, they will say, is Time Warner harvesting your data. They are content providers. That way, it can have its cake and eat it too, assuming that the customer likes cake and his fridge hasn’t run out.

There were other issues discussed at this landmark meeting. One is mandatory arbitration, which Wheeler says will be addressed next February (after he has left to spend more time elsewhere – his tenure is up with the change of President). This says that companies can force customers not to join class action suits, and that they have to go to arbitration, not court, with complaints. This will increase the feeling, among customers, of being bullied by service providers.

The other is that Wheeler’s ruling did not rule out the service where customers pay for privacy. This service looks awfully like the “dark revenue” that operators get from charging for a paper bill. AT&T, actually, have stopped their version of this service.

The fact is that customer data, and the illusion that this data can be used to offer a personalized service, is flawed.

Surely, the way forward should be simple.

We have all lied on the internet. We have all lied when signing up to apps. We say we agree with the terms and conditions when we haven’t even read them. We know, in our heart of hearts, that one or more of those terms or conditions is that the company will sell our data. The fact is, if you disagree to this, you cannot use the service.

So, give customers the choice.

Instead of making sweeping policy decisions about whether AT&T or Facebook can use how much of their customers’ data, force companies to put their privacy policy into 200 words or less, and add a button. If you agree to share certain data, the service is free. If you don’t then you can use the service for $5 a month.

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