You Have No Privacy on the Internet

Wild claims are being made by powerful people about how certain regulatory changes being discussed in the US Congress will remove your privacy on the internet, enable evil corporations to sell your personal information to the highest bidder, and control where on the internet you can go. See here and here.These claims grossly misrepresent the facts.

The situation on the internet is like this: Imagine that when you walk around New York City, all the business owners know everything about you. Imagine that when a business owner learns something new about you, he immediately puts the information up for sale. You are naked! No privacy! Now you get on a train to Boston, and when you get off, you find exactly the same happens there -- AND, everyone in both cities knows what you did in all the other cities you've visited.Yes, there are things you can do about that. But most people don't do those things. They've decided that it's OK.

Until October 27, 2016, you were just as naked and for sale when on the train as you were while walking the streets. That's when the FCC issued new rules, which haven't gone into effect. Because the new rules have not gone into effect, rescinding them means that nothing has changed: you were naked and for sale from the start of the internet, whether in a city or on a train, and that won't change.

What's under discussion in Congress and at the FCC is this:

  • You should continue to be as naked and for sale while you're on the train as when you're in a city -- no more and no less. That's the "privacy" they're talking about, which is unchanged from the start of the internet.
  • Business should be free to offer different ways at different prices for consumers to travel from NYC to Boston, for example, cheap but slow bus, faster but more expensive train and fastest but most expensive airplane. So-called "net neutrality" rules amount to making everyone take the bus and ending consumer choice.

Ignorance and lies surround us. Business as usual.

You have no Privacy on the Internet

On the internet, you are naked. You always were. What has evolved are the methods for buying and selling pictures of your naked self, and histories of where you've been and what you've done.

I've visited a wonderful but obscure website for a credit card anti-fraud company I'm involved with, Feedzai. Today, I clicked on an item in my Facebook newsfeed about introverts and extroverts. When I got to the page, here's what I saw:

It's a great ad, and I never mind seeing it. How the heck did Feedzai manage to place an ad on this from-another-universe site? Simple: when I got to the site, it put my information up for auction, Feedzai looked at the information about me and placed a high enough bid to win the auction and place the ad. It's called real-time bidding. It takes place when you visit most websites, and happens in a fraction of a second.

I purposely picked an itty-bitty advertiser placing an ad on an obscure site to show how ubiquitous the information marketplace is. But the big boys do it too, and it's even creepier. I have a cat. I recently bought food for the cat. Here's what I just saw on the blog of Scott Adams:

Yes, that's exactly the product I bought on Amazon

There are private rooms on the internet, sites where the communication is encrypted. Google is one of them. The information about you learned by the encrypted site is entrusted to the site -- which may or may not be able to keep it secure. Google, for example, immediately puts the information up for sale, which is why you see ads related to the search you just did. The retail company from which you just bought something may not manage to keep your information secure, even if they try.

You are naked on the internet, followed everywhere, and you're always for sale. Period.

What would change if the privacy rules went into effect?

If you listen to the people screaming about it, lots would change. It would not.

  • The ISP's don't have much data to sell -- they're free to sell it now and have been free for years, but mostly they don't. ISP's are a tiny fraction of the internet ad market.
  • The ISP's get less of your data as time goes on. Far from having your complete browsing history and knowing your SSN and the size and color of the most recent clothing you just bought, as famous people have declared, they have little access to it, and the fraction gets smaller over time.
  • They never had access to your SSN. The proposed rule would have had no practical impact.
  • Most commercially important data passes through the ISP encrypted. It's literally not visible to them. Look up at the URL of this blog. It's not encrypted. On the other hand, the fact that you're viewing it is commercially useless.
  • Go to Google and look at the URL. You'll see https:// at the start, which means it's encrypted. The ISP literally can't see what you're searching for! And when you go to Amazon or another commercial site, it's the same. The ISP doesn't know what you've bought. But Amazon does, and stalks you with ads about it, as illustrated above.

This whole thing is a tempest in a teapot.

What about Net Neutrality, which the FCC proposes ending?

This is a complex subject, with heated rhetoric all around. I go into the issues in depth here. Briefly, ending net neutrality is a good thing for consumers.

Net neutrality says, for example, that all the seats at Yankee Stadium have to be sold at the same price and offer the same views. We all know that the views from the grandstand and the upper deck are quite a bit different from the boxes behind the dugouts. Most people understand and accept that the prices vary accordingly. Under net neutrality, everything would have to be the same and charged the same price. Switching metaphors, why would any company offer air service if they could only charge the same rates as the bus? Why would any company offer better service without any incentive to do so?

Naturally, there are arguments against the summary I've presented here. To go into depth, read this.

Conclusion

You're naked and for sale on the internet. It's the way it is. It stops almost no one from using the internet, and many people find it convenient, seeing things that are more relevant to them than not. The frantic noise about the awfulness of rescinding a change that never took effect is nothing but posturing to the ignorant.

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