Danielle McLaughlin: All-seeing ISPs set to get rich off customers' online information

US lawmakers have voted to repeal internet privacy rules, potentially giving internet service providers access to the ...
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US lawmakers have voted to repeal internet privacy rules, potentially giving internet service providers access to the browsing history of American web users.

OPINION: My daughter, Olympia, was born on a cold and bright winter morning in January 2015. Once my husband and I oriented (somewhat) to our new reality – and had spread the news of her arrival via text and email to family and close friends – we posted a photo of Olympia on Facebook.

We decided during that hospital visit that this would be one of few images we'd share of her on social media.  Because her privacy was not ours to give away.  We thought at the time that this act would go a long way towards protecting her anonymity. We thought, perhaps foolishly, that we had real control of it. We were wrong.

News broke this week that the US House of Representatives voted along party lines (Republicans for, Democrats against) to join the Senate in repealing internet privacy rules for Americans.

Danielle McLaughlin: Republicans suggest that complying with rules that force ISPs not to be creeps dampens their ...
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Danielle McLaughlin: Republicans suggest that complying with rules that force ISPs not to be creeps dampens their ability to innovate.

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These Obama-era rules hadn't yet gone into effect.  They were part of Obama's flurry of activity during the waning months of his presidency. 

They were designed to create some modicum of browsing privacy, and to prevent Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, from doing all sorts of creepy things including tracking browser history, selling that browsing history, sending search requests to search engines that gave kick-backs to the ISPs, and pre-installing spyware on devices (phones, tablets) that tracks all URLs visited by the user. 

To be clear, sites like Google and Facebook collect user information and package and sell it.  But whereas Google and Facebook have a limited window into online behaviour.  ISPs see everything.  Because of this, the Obama-era rules required consumers to specifically "opt in" to this kind of data collection.  Collection that feels very "Big Brother".  Almost creepy.

Once President Trump agrees to repeal the privacy rules, and he's sure to, consumers will have to specifically opt out of this creepy data collection in order to avoid it.  Realistically, this means ISPs will have carte blanche to collect and sell browsing history information, because an opt out is easily (and often) buried, even if you know where to look (and most people don't). 

The result? A rich trove of personal information – shopping preferences, political persuasion, health and financial information of users and their family members, geo-location information, and plenty of behaviour that people prefer to keep between them and their devices – will be sold to the highest bidder.

Why are Republicans doing this?  Well, it's the old story about free markets. 

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According to the Washington Post, ISPs want a piece of the $83 billion (NZ$118b) market for online advertising. They are, after all, sitting on a goldmine of behaviours, preferences, and demographics.  This data is exactly what advertisers want to get the maximum bang for their buck as they insert themselves into your frantic search on Amazon.com for the birthday present you forgot to buy and your wistful tours around Expedia.com. 

Republicans also suggest that complying with rules that force ISPs not to be creeps dampens their ability to innovate. Ergo, the age-old "government is bad" argument.

What these rules sought to do was ensure some privacy in an increasingly online world.  They required explicit permission for the sharing of sensitive personal information like a person's health or the health of their children.  They also sought to keep geo-location information private in order to maintain a wall between a person's online presence and their actual, physical presence. 

Democrats wanted these rules in place to protect consumer privacy rights.  They recognised that these rights are important.  And that it was difficult, if not impossible, to protect these rights without government intervention.

Reading these rules, and understanding that they would not be enacted, made me think that although my daughter's image isn't plastered across social media, so much of her young life has played out on URLs.  When she got a passport. Where she's travelled.  When we've needed urgent care. Who her doctor is.  Where she goes to daycare. What size nappies she wears.  Where she'll be this weekend (The Children's Museum of Manhattan. I researched it online).

Democrats suggested this week that Republicans who voted for the repeal should have to release their browsing history to the public as a condition of their vote. As with much of legislation, and legislators, I strongly suspect that if the price had been this personal, those privacy rules would have stayed firmly in place.

Follow Danielle on Twitter: @MsDMcLaughlin 

 - Sunday Star Times

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