A standing room meeting organized by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in Washington on Monday, December 7th, highlighted a crucial divide in the discussion over the regulation of online privacy. The New York Times provides an excellent summary of the mainstream newsworthy aspects of the meeting.
While the take away may be that the FTC is taking a more serious look at online privacy and net neutrality, the reality is that any oversight is not going to happen anytime soon. Not anytime soon as in years, if ever. Policy making as the solution is not going to address any immediate concerns or problems.
What may be of more interest is the deep divide between the parties with a vested interest in the outcome of the discussion, namely, the consumer/consumer advocates and parties making money from information that may one day be regulated.
Consumers generally have no idea what information or Internet usage habits are being shared, or how it is being shared. Sure, legitimate businesses state clearly in privacy policies and disclosures what is going to happen with your information. Less scrupulous companies lie in those policies and statements. But you don’t read those policies or disclosures. Nobody does.
Consumer/privacy advocate groups do read those policies and disclosures, and they speak for consumers. But the consumer often feels he or she has no real vested interest in the use of the most benign of that information. Why do I care if information about what movies I rent gets made public in an anonymous manner? You probably do not care.
You would care if that information about you concerned your sexual orientation, which is a personal matter that you have felt personal enough to keep to yourself. An exploit in Netflix’s database exposed that information about one woman (according to her), and she sued.
The businesses that make money off of your information and Internet usage habits stand to lose money. Lots and lots of money. Groups like Google, the Direct Marketing Association, Facebook and even those URL shortening services that aggregate data to sell reports on what is hot in Internet traffic.
And the answer for those groups that stand to lose money if the current “opt-out” approach is abandoned? Turn off cookies. Do not sign up for services that disclose personal information in exchange for you to use the providers’ services. The web site will not “function” properly with the cookies turned off? Well, you do not have to use the web site. You do not want anything about your use shared? Hey, don’t use Facebook. You are concerned about law enforcement accessing your Internet history without probable cause or reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing (specifically, without a warrant)? There must be alternatives to Comcast and FIOS, right?
Most people do not want governmental regulation of more and more activities, but most people will also admit that where rights are trampled, government regulation is often the best tool to stamp it out. Most businesses do not want regulation, period.
The debate is going to get heated, it is going to be protracted and it is going to expose who has an interest and what sacrifices (often of others) they are willing to make. We look forward to seeing how the debates unfold. If it is anything like the underreported FTC meeting in Washington almost two weeks ago, the debate will be interesting with no clear winner (unless the status quo remains, in which businesses brokering data continue to win).