Remedies large and small for our Internet ills (2)

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If we’re short on remedies for our Internet ills, we’re sure not short on the red flags and warning signs.

Last week, for example, celebrity cryptographer Bruce Schneier published his 14th book –– Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected World. It seems to be selling well — hardly surprising given the importance of the topic and Schneier’s knack for describing arcane technical ideas in a punchy, readable style.

Schneier shares an abiding interest in tech policy, much like former FCC chair Tom Wheeler, whose own policy prescriptions we looked at in the previous post. His recent paper — “Time to Fix It: Developing Rules for Internet Capitalism” — argues it’s time for the IT industry to “deal responsibly with the world they created.”

Wheeler reminds us that in Washington, tech companies have been “taking fire from both sides of the aisle.” The appearance before Congress two weeks ago of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey showed how daunting it will be to “regulate” the big platforms. And the Internet’s biggest monopolist — Google/Alphabet — didn’t even show up for this convo. What’s a good Republican supposed to do with that kind of snub?

Wheeler doesn’t hew to the predictable business ideology of deregulation, as his 2015 Open Internet Order demonstrated. He believes — on the basis of his role in bringing oversight to the cable and cellular industries — that regulation is good for tech industries. Today, a new policy framework can and should provide business certainty without any risk of killing innovation, one of those popular Republican refrains about the evils of regulation.

Wheeler’s unusual idea is to reconcile consumer welfare with business growth and innovation — an important step in changing outmoded thinking. His overall policy goal is public accountability, based on individual privacy, marketplace competition and operational openness. If anyone can persuade Silicon Valley it’s in their own best interests to update their thinking, it’s probably Wheeler. He’s got unbeatable credibility as a successful businessman, lobbyist and regulator, all with a bent toward emerging technologies.

Wheeler believes individual privacy can be salvaged by giving consumers “control of how their information is collected and how it is used.” This idea isn’t original. It’s the basis for the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, the GDPR, which, as Wheeler points out, is forcing American companies to reshape their business models to fit European culture, not a pretty picture for the country that invented the Internet. And a compelling reason for the Internet’s top privacy violators to be worried.

Fox seeks data from henhouse

But Stateside, all signs point to long battles ahead. If there were ever  any doubt, the IT industry has shown this year just how much it hates any talk about privacy protection. The recent battleground has been California’s new privacy law. It has offered the tech industry an opportunity to do some serious grandstanding, like claiming the law will hurt not help consumers. The detractors include the Internet Association, the group that sometimes speaks for Google and Facebook, who are adamant about not allowing any state-level privacy laws to survive a federal initiative.

The California bill doesn’t even come into force until 2020. But till then, industry lawyers and lobbyists will be buying themselves lots of shiny new sports cars for explaining why it will ruin the Internet — and why they’ll be insisting that any federal framework be voluntary. Draft any provisions you like, as long as we can ignore them.

In the land of lip service

Today the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is holding a further hearing on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century. Yesterday one former FTC consumer protection official testified that invoking civil penalties for privacy violations isn’t a good idea. Why? Because it’s not clear what is a privacy violation and what isn’t. Ya, it’s complicated.

Just wait till next Wednesday, Sept 26, when six of the usual suspects sit down before the Senate Commerce Committee to discuss their privacy policies while earnestly committing themselves to as little as humanly possible — in the spirit of what Zeynep Tufecki refers to as Zuckerberg’s “14-year apology tour.” The suspects are Amazon, Apple, Google, Twitter and access providers AT&T and Charter Communications. (John Thune, chair, Senate Commerce Committee at right.)

A small object lesson. One of the main arguments AT&T advanced for acquiring Time Warner was “new advertising options.” Yet not so new: we’ll take all the personal data from every customer touchpoint on an opt-out basis and sell it to the same guys who are paying Google and Facebook for everyone’s personal data.

These marauding moguls will be squaring off with a panel of ethically challenged politicians who still don’t understand how the Internet works. The moguls want to forestall being told what to do, after a lifetime of telling everybody else what to do. The politicians want to curry favor with constituents who might care about privacy by sounding like they care about privacy.

I have nothing to hide

As if. These are the self-same senators who, in the spring of 2017, helped kill off the FCC rules designed to protect subscriber privacy from ISPs like, oh ya, AT&T and Charter Communications. These rules were to prevent ISPs from pilfering subscriber data to sell off to whomever they liked  — rules that were the handiwork of the previous FCC chair, one Tom Wheeler, in the wake of his Open Internet Order. Until the 2016 election. Ajit Pai took over the FCC and said, harrumph, privacy is the FTC’s job! The industry said those ISP privacy rules are “confusing.” Not for them, of course — for consumers!

I’m not optimistic Tom Wheeler and his sensible ideas can make much of a dent in this unholy mess. Ironically, the otherwise crass, self-serving industry arguments about consumers being “hurt” and “confused” contain more than a pinch of truth. I was reminded of that in class the other day when a student asked a popular question: What’s so bad about not having privacy? Whatever the stuffed shirts make of their hearings and backroom boondoggles, we’re still going to be left with a deeply entrenched barrier to consumer welfare: the twin consumer afflictions of privacy fatigue and digital illiteracy.