Remedies large and small for our Internet ills (1)

“Breaking things is easy, dealing with the effects is hard.” –Tom Wheeler, August 2018

980 words

I had a conversation this morning with a neighbor who, like some of my best friends, is a practising lawyer. The talk turned to privacy, which is of considerable interest to people who trade in privileged information.  

I had some unkind words for Google, and suggested he try using DuckDuckGo instead of the obvious choice. I had to spell the name several times. But what about all those other ways Google gets you, he asked — including Gmail, which I’d urged him to start using a few years ago, he reminded me.

Recent figures illustrate the uphill battle even this small step entails. As of July, Google’s search engine owned over 86% of the search market in the US. DuckDuckGo sits at 0.64%, comfortably ahead of MSN and Yandex RU.

It’s a great service everyone should support — and a tiny drop in a huge, greasy bucket full of grasping, unprincipled advertisers, platform operators and data miners. At least switching search engines isn’t especially inconvenient — more than you can say for the steps required to get those creepy targeted ads outta your life altogether. 

The Technology section of the New York Times has made a priority of offering practical tips to readers stuck on tech annoyances. Their Tech Tip troubleshooter, J.D. Biersdorfer, has been offering advice since 1998 — so far back broadband had barely been invented.

Brian Chen, the Times’ lead consumer technology writer, has also been pitching advice for the techlorn. His current piece is “Are Targeted Ads Stalking You? Here’s How to Make Them Stop.” He offers some context to help understand how and why stalker ads follow us around. He then outlines four “easy” steps you can take — followed by another four that “step it up a notch.”

Chen’s first tip is clear your cookies periodically. This measure isn’t exactly intuitive — and it’s inconvenient because deleted cookies mean you have to sign in again to many sites. And yet as long as four years ago, Pew Research reported 59% of surveyed users had cleared their cookies or browser history — even though the “vast majority” had not changed their online behavior to avoid being tracked. As Pew reported subsequently, the top open-ended response as to why they hadn’t done so: “I have nothing to hide.”

Once he gets to the advanced measures, Chen warns us that setting up to prevent ads from “haunting you” is a “grueling process.” The grueling part includes warnings about the downside of installing a private browser like DuckDuckGo on your phone: the built-in blockers “can break important parts of websites.”

Even a determined consumer willing to work through these difficulties faces a much bigger obstacle: the industry and the cat-and-mouse game we’re all caught in. Chen cites an ad agency source who asks rhetorically: What would you rather see, “ads that are at least trying to be of interest to you, or ads that are spray and pray?” This is the kind of tech entrepreneur who doesn’t get the concept of creepy — but who knows that, in the digital ad business, privacy is Enemy #1 (Tech mobilizes against California privacy law).

There’s a good reason the industry likes tech “solutions” compared to legal constraints. Take cookies. As more users discovered deletion, the industry discovered alternative ways to track you. One of these is browser or device “fingerprinting” — capturing a set of data about your device that has a high chance of identifying you uniquely, without cookies. Right on cue, the good guys fought back — like Mozilla, which developed new ways to protect against fingerprinting using its Firefox browser.

Two takeaways. One, there’s no end-game in the fight for online privacy. Two, as Chen shows, one solution won’t fix all. And multi-layered solutions for our ills mean it’s gonna get grueling for mainstreamers. Later on, even more grueling.

Enter Tom Wheeler and some bigger solutions.

Wheeler is remembered as the FCC chair who gave America the Open Internet Order — which his Republican successor Ajit Pai eradicated in favor of his own “Restoring Internet Freedom,” to the chagrin of progressives everywhere. 

While he was in office (Nov 2013—Jan 2017), Wheeler was lambasted by critics on the right for being an Obama guy, and by critics on the left for having been an industry guy — as head lobbyist for both the cable and wireless industries. Back in June 2014, I wrote a post lavishing praise on his ideas. In a statement at the time about net neutrality, he said not only that ISP customers must get what they’re paying for — but that they also needed to understand what that bargain meant for their welfare.

Wheeler has just published a paper as senior research fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, of the Harvard Kennedy School: “Time to Fix It: Developing Rules for Internet Capitalism.” His basic argument is that it’s time for the IT industry to “deal responsibly with the world they created.”

Before a look at details (next post), it’s worth considering two things about the way the author unfurls his argument. First — erstwhile critics on the left take note — he shows the significant advantages in having been an industry “lacky” who was part of creating a new legal framework that provided “policy certainty for new technology companies and policy oversight for consumers.” And he did so twice, in connection with both the cable-TV industry and the cellular phone industry.

Based on his experience in both industry and public service, Wheeler has crafted an unusual approach to progressive change based on the protection of consumers, competition and innovation. Part of the appeal is he’s not a reformist who goes hellbent for hard solutions like breaking up the platforms that have grown too big for the common good. Instead he looks at ways to change attitudes — not just rules — to protect the greatest good of the greatest number.

More on Wheeler’s ideas next time.