AT&T, Comcast & Verizon Pretend They Didn't Just Pay Congress To Sell You Out On Privacy
Large ISPs like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast spent a significant part of Friday trying to convince the press and public that they didn't just screw consumers over on privacy (if you've been napping: they did). With the vote on killing FCC broadband privacy protections barely in the books, ISP lobbyists and lawyers penned a number of editorials and blog posts breathlessly professing their tireless dedication to privacy, and insisting that worries about the rules' repeal are little more than "misinformation."
All of these posts, in lock step, tried to effectively make three key arguments: that the FTC will rush in to protect consumers in the wake of the FCC rules being repealed (not happening), ISPs don't really collect much data on you anyway (patently untrue), and that ISPs' lengthy, existing privacy policies and history of consumer respect mean consumers have nothing to worry about (feel free to pause here and laugh).
For more than a decade, large ISPs have used deep-packet inspection, search engine redirection and clickstream data collection to build detailed user profiles, and their longstanding refusal to candidly talk about many of these programs should make their actual dedication to user privacy abundantly clear. Yet over at Comcast, Deputy General Counsel & Chief Privacy Officer Gerard Lewis spent some time complaining that consumer privacy concerns are little more than "misleading talk" and "misinformation and inaccurate statements":
"There has been a lot of misleading talk about how the congressional action this week to overturn the regulatory overreach of the prior FCC will now permit us to sell sensitive customer data without customersâ€™ knowledge or consent. This is just not true. In fact, we have committed not to share our customersâ€™ sensitive information (such as banking, childrenâ€™s, and health information), unless we first obtain their affirmative, opt-in consent."
AT&T was a bit more verbose in a post over at the AT&T policy blog, where again it trots out this idea that existing FTC oversight is somehow good enough:
"The reality is that the FCCâ€™s new broadband privacy rules had not yet even taken effect. And no one is saying there shouldnâ€™t be any rules. Supporters of this action all agree that the rescinded FCC rules should be replaced by a return to the long-standing Federal Trade Commission approach. But in todayâ€™s overheated political dialogue, it is not surprising that some folks are ignoring the facts."
So again, the FTC doesn't really have much authority over broadband, and AT&T forgets to mention that its lawyers have found ways to wiggle around what little authority the agency does have via common carrier exemptions. And while AT&T insists that "no one is saying there shouldn't be any rules," its lobbyists are working tirelessly to accomplish precisely that by gutting both FTC and FCC oversight of the telecom sector. Not partially. Entirely. Title II, net neutrality, privacy -- AT&T wants it all gone. Its pretense to the contrary is laughable.
Like the other two providers, AT&T trots out this idea that the FCC's rules weren't fair because they didn't also apply to "edge" companies like Facebook or Google (which actually are more fully regulated by the FTC). That's a flimsy point also pushed by an AT&T and US Telecom Op/Ed over at Axios, where the lobbying group's CEO Jonathan Spalter tries to argue that consumers shouldn't worry about ISPs, because their data is also being hoovered up further down the supply chain:
"Your browser history is already being aggregated and sold to advertising networksâ€”by virtually every site you visit on the internet. Consumers' browsing history is bought and sold across massive online advertising networks every day. This is the reason so many popular online destinations and services are "free." And, it's why the ads you see on your favorite sitesâ€”large and smallâ€”always seem so relevant to what you've recently been shopping for online. Of note, internet service providers are relative bit players in the $83 billion digital ad market, which made singling them out for heavier regulations so suspect."
Again, this quite intentionally ignores the fact that whereas you can choose to not use Facebook or Gmail, a lack of competition means you're stuck with your broadband provider. As such, arguing that "everybody else is busy collecting your data" isn't much of an argument, especially when "everybody else" is having their behaviors checked by competitive pressure to offer a better product. As well-respected security expert Bruce Schneier points out in a blog post, these companies desperately want you to ignore this one, central, undeniable truth:
"When markets work well, different companies compete on price and features, and society collectively rewards better products by purchasing them. This mechanism fails if there is no competition, or if rival companies choose not to compete on a particular feature. It fails when customers are unable to switch to competitors. And it fails when what companies do remains secret.
Unlike service providers like Google and Facebook, telecom companies are infrastructure that requires government involvement and regulation. The practical impossibility of consumers learning the extent of surveillance by their Internet service providers, combined with the difficulty of switching them, means that the decision about whether to be spied on should be with the consumer and not a telecom giant. That this new bill reverses that is both wrong and harmful."
This lack of competition didn't just magically happen. As in other sectors driven by legacy turf protectors, the same ISP lobbyists that just gutted the FCC's privacy rules have a long and proud history of dismantling competitive threats at every conceivable opportunity, then paying legislators to look the other way. That includes pushing for protectionist state laws preventing towns and cities from doing much of anything about it. It's not clear who these ISPs thought they were speaking to in these editorials, but it's certainly not to folks that have actually paid attention to their behavior over the last fifteen years.
The EFF, meanwhile, concisely calls these ISPs' sudden and breathless dedication to privacy nonsense:
"There is a lot to say about the nonsense they've produced here," said Ernesto Falcon, legislative counsel at EFF. "There is little reason to believe they will not start using personal data they've been legally barred from using and selling to bidders without our consent now. The law will soon be tilted in their favor to do it."
Gosh, who to believe? Actual experts on subjects like security or privacy, or one of the more dishonest and anti-competitive business sectors in American industry? All told, you can expect these ISPs to remain on their best behavior for a short while for appearances' sake (and because AT&T wants its Time Warner merger approved) -- but it's not going to be long before they rush to abuse the lack of oversight their campaign contributions just successfully created. Anybody believing otherwise simply hasn't been paying attention to the laundry list of idiotic ISP actions that drove the FCC to try and pass the now-dismantled rules in the first place.
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