If You're Pissed About Facebook's Privacy Abuses, You Should Be Four Times As Angry At The Broadband Industry
from the selective-outrage dept
To be very clear, Facebook is well deserving of the mammoth backlash the company is experiencing in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations. Especially since Facebook’s most substantive reaction to date has been to threaten lawsuits against news outlets for telling the truth. And, like most of these stories, it’s guaranteed that the core story is only destined to get worse as more and more is revealed about the way such casual handling of private consumer data is pretty much routine not only at Facebook, but everywhere.
Despite the fact that consumer privacy apathy is now bone-grafted to the DNA of global corporate culture (usually only bubbling up after a scandal breaks), the outrage over Facebook’s lack of transparency has been monumental.
Verizon-owned Techcrunch, for example, this week went so far as to call Facebook a “cancer,” demanding that readers worried about privacy abuses delete their Facebook accounts. The #Deletefacebook hashtag has been trending, and countless news outlets have subsequently provided wall to wall coverage on how to delete your Facebook account (or at least delete older Facebook posts and shore up app-sharing permissions) in order to protect your privacy.
And while this outrage is well-intentioned and certainly justified, a lot of it seems a touch naive. Many of the folks that are busy deleting their Facebook accounts are simultaneously still perfectly happy to use their stock smartphone on a major carrier network, seemingly oblivious to the ugly reality that the telecom sector has been engaged, routinely, in far worse privacy violations for the better part of the last two decades. Behavior that has just as routinely failed to see anywhere near the same level of outrage by consumers, analysts or the tech press.
You’ll recall that a decade ago, ISPs were caught routinely hoovering up clickstream data (data on each and every website you visit), then selling it to whoever was willing to pony up the cash. When ISPs were asked to share more detail on this data collection by the few outlets that thought this might not be a good idea, ISP executives would routinely play dumb and mute (they still do). And collectively, the lion’s share of the press and public generally seemed OK with that.
From there, we learned that AT&T and Verizon were effectively bone grafted to the nation’s intelligence apparatus, and both companies were caught routinely helping Uncle Sam not only spy on Americans without warrants, but providing advice on how best to tap dance around wiretap and privacy laws. When they were caught spying on Americans in violation of the law, these companies’ lobbyists simply convinced the government to change the law to make this behavior retroactively legal. Again, I can remember a lot of tech news outlets justifying this apathy for national security reasons.
Once these giant telecom operators were fused to the government’s data gathering operations, holding trusted surveillance partners accountable for privacy abuses (or much of anything else) increasingly became an afterthought. Even as technologies like deep packet inspection made it possible to track and sell consumer online behavior down to the millisecond. As the government routinely signaled that privacy abuses wouldn’t be seriously policed, large ISPs quickly became more emboldened when it came to even more “creative” privacy abuses.
Like the time Verizon Wireless was caught covertly modifying user data packets to track users around the internet without telling them or letting them opt out. It took two years for security researchers to even realize what Verizon was doing, and another six months for Verizon to integrate an opt out function. But despite a wrist slap by the FCC, the company continues to use a more powerful variant of the same technology across its “Oath” ad empire (the combination of AOL and Yahoo) without so much as a second glance from most news outlets.
Or the time that AT&T, with full regulatory approval, decided it would be cool to charge its broadband customers hundreds of additional dollars per year just to protect their own privacy, something the company had the stones to insist was somehow a “discount.” Comcast has since explored doing the same thing in regulatory filings (pdf), indicating that giant telecom monopolies are really keen on making consumer privacy a luxury option. Other companies, like CableOne, have crowed about using credit data to justify providing low income customers even worse support than the awful customer service the industry is known for.
And again, this was considered perfectly ok by government regulators, and (with a few exceptions) most of these efforts barely made a dent in national tech coverage. Certainly nowhere near the backlash we’ve seen from this Facebook story.
A few years back, the Wheeler run FCC realized that giant broadband providers were most assuredly running off the rails in terms of consumer privacy, so they proposed some pretty basic privacy guidelines for ISPs. While ISPs whined incessantly about the “draconian” nature of the rules, the reality is they were relatively modest: requiring that ISPs simply be transparent about what consumer data was being collected or sold, and provide consumers with working opt out tools.
But the GOP and Trump administration quickly moved (at Comcast, Verizon and AT&T’s lobbying behest) to gut those rules via the Congressional Review Act before they could take effect. And when states like California tried to pass some equally modest privacy guidelines for ISPs on the state level to fill the void, telecom duopolies worked hand in hand with Google and Facebook to kill the effort, falsely informing lawmakers that privacy safeguards would harm children, inundate the internet with popups (what?), and somehow aid extremism on the internet. You probably didn’t see much tech press coverage of this, either.
So again, it makes perfect sense to be angry with Facebook. But if you’re deleting Facebook to protect your privacy but still happily using your stock, bloatware-laden smartphone on one of these networks, you’re just trying to towel off in a rainstorm. The reality is that apathy to consumer privacy issues is the norm across industries, not the exception, and however bad Facebook’s behavior has been on the privacy front, the telecom industry has been decidedly worse for much, much longer. And whereas you can choose not to use Facebook, a lack of competition means you’re stuck with your snoop-happy ISP.
We’ve collectively decided, repeatedly, that it’s OK to sacrifice consumer privacy and control for fatter revenues, a concept perfected by the telecom sector, and the Congressional and regulatory lackeys paid to love and protect them from accountability and competition. So while it’s wonderful that we’re suddenly interested in having a widespread, intelligent conversation about privacy in the wake of the Facebook revelations, let’s do so with the broader awareness that Facebook’s casual treatment of consumer privacy is just the outer maw of a mammoth gullet of dysfunction.