Privacy and the Web

There has been a lot of attention paid to Washington D.C. lately, but something that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves is the recent move by Congress to allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to sell information regarding the sites their customers visit. This move has a number of implications for consumers and privacy advocates.

The Problem of Choice

Advocates of the legislation point out that user data is already collected and sold by a number of different companies that were not regulated by the previous rules. Companies like Google and Facebook routinely collect data from their users and sell it to third parties. They argue there is no reason these firms should be allowed to collect and sell information, but ISPs should not. However, this view ignores an important distinction; consumers have a choice of search engines or social media sites, and can choose not to use those services. Many consumers have limited choices when it comes to their Internet Service Providers, and so cannot exercise the same level of control over their personal information.

Additionally, most ad services that track private information allow some kind of opt out. Apple lets you remove the information needed to track you, and Google allows you to reset your advertising ID. It is unclear if ISPs will offer the option to opt out of collection, or if users will have to accept that their browsing history has become part of their payment for access to the internet.

The Problem of Aggregate Information

Internet Service Providers argue that information will not be tied to any personally identifying information. Rather, information will be provided based on geographical territories. This set up does allow for some privacy, but information may still be used to identify individual persons or businesses by the browsing history, creating the potential for privacy abuses. It remains to be seen if aggregating information can provide the privacy that users have come to expect.

The Arguments for ISP Data Sales

This situation is not a clear-cut case. ISPs make a strong argument for their ability to collect and sell information on users. The first point they make is this will allow for a better ad experience for customers. We’ve all come to accept that ads on websites are part of life, and most people seem to prefer ads that are relevant to them. ISPs have a unique position in that they can track browsing through multiple devices, giving advertisers a more complete picture of what customers are interested in.
Furthermore, as society becomes driven even more by data, ISPs will have to provide an increasing amount of bandwidth. Allowing the sale of browsing histories can help offset the costs of providing internet access, and may make high speed internet more affordable and accessible.

In the end, there is no clear resolution to this issue. Time will tell if ISP data sales will become something else we just accept, or if they will cause enough backlash from privacy advocates to force Congress to return to the issue.

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