US President Donald Trump recently signed a bill passed by the US House of Representatives which repeals a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule, introduced at the end of 2016, that required Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to get customers’ permission before selling browsing history information to third parties. With the ruling drawing fire from many quarters, Chris Ankers looks at the impact of this decision and what is likely to happen in other parts of the world.
Your browsing history is on sale and it’s available to any advertiser who is willing to cough up enough dollars for it. This landmark ruling is being seen as a huge blow to the advocates of internet privacy and a shot in the arm for advertisers who can now use your personal data, albeit for the IP address not linked to an individual, to send down targeted ads and generate even more profits. Before taking sides in this debate however, it will be useful to understand the premise of the ruling.
What is the difference between Google and your ISP going forward?
The argument among the ISPs and advertising lobbyists was that if other internet companies such as Google and Facebook were free to use and share consumer data, the same rules should be applicable to the ISPs as well. While earlier the ISPs had to seek consent from the customer to share private data, the new ruling waives this critical requirement.
Who is it valuable for?
From an advertiser’s perspective, this data has immense value, allowing businesses and organisations to connect with the people who are most likely to be interested in their products and services. This is a goldmine of information even if the underlying data has a very short shelf life. However, from the consumer side, it is difficult to see an upside. The loss of privacy without the ability to opt out, or even to influence the preferences, does seem like a raw deal for customers.
Will other countries follow suit?
With ubiquitous demand for internet and the relentless pressure from consumers to reduce the cost of data services, ISPs are always looking for other revenue opportunities outside of pure play internet services. As other companies are eating into the services they have historically provided, the ISPs across the world will push for a similar ruling so that they can monetise this valuable data. Having said that, the privacy modus operandi in different countries, especially in Europe, will perhaps tilt the scales in favour of the opt-out option and advertisers will be able to sell the data only if the consumer has consented.
What will be the impact of losing this privacy?
The U.S. seems set on a path where consumers will not be able to control the sale of data from the ISPs. This may spark off a rapid surge of alternative mechanisms to browse the internet, such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) or browsers that use an HTTPS connection to an external website and relay the original request from there.
Amidst this legislative chaos innovation is sure to continue, and I can only see the rise of more such anonymising services. Perhaps this will give rise to the next generation of internet giants with new business models that are not dependent on advertising? Time will tell, but we are watching closely!
(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)