Welcome to the Wild West of Privacy
The US Senate vote to overturn broadband privacy regulations imposed under the Obama Administration is meeting with the expected outcry of consumer protectionists. They are worried that broadband Internet service providers are now free to assemble customer data and use it as they wish, to target ads and new services, and potentially do other more nefarious things.
From the time that former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Tom Wheeler proposed these rules for broadband ISPs, I've been of two minds on the topic. On the one hand, I think broadband providers should WANT to give their customers the right to choose how their data is handled, as part of their routine service agreement. On the other, limiting what ISPs can do without also limiting what search and social media firms can do with customer data struck me as pointless, and potentially confusing to consumers.
As my colleague, Mari Silbey, pointed out to me recently, the Senate vote to withdraw the privacy rules means that, unless something changes, by law no agency has jurisdiction over broadband privacy.
That sounds like a bad thing -- but is it? At least now there is no confusion -- we are formally in the wild west of privacy regulations, where the Internet and electronic commerce is concerned. There can be no confusion because there are no protections -- so buyer beware.
The other potential upside is the ability of ISPs to intelligently use consumer data to deliver more useful advertising or product information, and to offer better customer service. Customer billing and service data is already being used to better respond to customer complaints or to make timely product or pricing pitches in ways designed to reduce customer churn.
But there are potential downsides as well. Abuse of customer data -- beyond what already happens online -- will likely lead not just to outcry, but action. The ability to have a higher degree of privacy could well become one of the deciding factors in choosing a broadband ISP, where such choices exist.
I would not be surprised to see privacy protection become a service that is delivered, much as identity theft protection is sold today, to consumers who value their Internet privacy enough to pay for it. And I would expect to see consumer groups offering to educate the public on what's happening and what's at risk.
That being said, however, the vast majority of US consumers will continue as they are today, being stalked online by ads for things they just bought or the stuff in their abandoned e-carts. They won't know -- or likely care -- whether those ads are being generated by their search provider, their preferred social media platform or even their broadband ISP.
If anything, with the rise of in-home digital assistants that can control our calendars, offer us advice and directions and find almost anything we want based on a simple voice command, we seem more willing than ever to expose private information to make our lives easier. And as long as that remains the case, Thursday's vote is likely to go down in history as not that big a deal after all.
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading