April 22nd, 2017

Network Service Providers and Privacy

Advertising runs on data. It always has. Long before programmatic ads and algorithms, we saw Mercedes-Benz ads in Fortune and Chevy ads in Mechanix Illustrated. Some clever guy had figured out that Fortune readers and Mechanix Illustrated readers bought different cars. The success of an advertising outlet has always depended on the outlet’s generation of sales. Successful sales depend on finding qualified buyers.

Today, qualified buyers are spotted by their on-line habits, that now include choice of websites to visit, age, gender, physical locations, income, purchase patterns and many other factors. Based on these factors, on-line ads are targeted to narrowly identified network users. Advertisers now have masses of data and abundant computing power to process the data.

Websites as Data Sources

But the advertisers want more data, ads targeted more precisely. Who is surprised? There are two main sources of consumer data for targeted advertising. The first source is the websites we use all the time. Google and Facebook are most prominent. They know their users and use the knowledge to aim the ads they sell to their advertisers. These targeted ads are the revenue source that funds the free services these sites offer.

Network Service Providers

The other main source of buyer information is network service providers like Comcast and Verizon. Google and Facebook have in depth information on what people do while using these sites but the know very little about what is happening outside their own sites. Service providers have a wider, but shallower, view of people’s activity.

Google knows you searched on “archery” and clicked on an informational archery site. Google identifies you as a candidate for bow and arrow ads. Comcast knows something else. Inside the sports site, you clicked on a link to Ed’s Sporting Goods. Comcast might try to sell Ed ads that they will target at you. Only Ed and you bank know that you ordered a baseball and mitt, so you probably won’t get any baseball ads.

Data Brokers

A data broker might try to purchase data from Google, Comcast, Ed, and your bank. With the purchased data, they can put together an even more detailed picture of your habits. Exactly what information the data broker will get depends on the privacy policies and regulations of Google, Comcast, Ed’s Sporting Goods, and your bank.

These data brokers disturb some people, even conspiracy skeptics like me, because they seem to have little accountability. Users have the “Terms of Service” and privacy policies that govern their relationships with Google, Comcast, and their bank, but the data brokers have no direct relationship with the people profiled in their data bases. Are the brokers good or bad? We don’t know. If they misuse our data, will we ever know? Do we have any recourse? I don’t have answers to these questions yet, but I think we all need them.

The FCC and the FTC

Both websites and network service providers are subject to regulations on what they can collect, how they can collect it, and the data they can sell, but the regulations vary. Google and Facebook are subject to Federal Trade Commission guidelines, like all businesses engaged in interstate trade. Network service providers are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission as common carriers.

There are significant differences. Network service providers are treated as utilities. Utilities are services such as electrical and telephone services that people must have. Google and Facebook are businesses that consumers choose to deal with. Because people have no choice, utilities are regulated more strictly than most businesses. Are network services a utility, or just businesses? Last year, the FCC declared them to be a utility and subject to FCC regulation, but some argue that the ruling was wrong and should be corrected.

Opt-in vs Opt-out

A critical point is whether collecting consumer information should be “opt-in” or “opt-out”? If collection is opt-in, information cannot begin to be collected until the customer says it is okay. If collection is opt-out, it is okay to collect information until the customer takes the effort to say no.

Which way is best? Consumers with informed opinions generally prefer opt-in, but a lot of people don’t care and think opt-out is fine. Businesses that collect and use data tend to prefer opt-out schemes.

Business or Utility?

When network service providers were classified utilities, they became subject to opt-in rules. FTC guidelines, which apply to Google and Facebook, are opt-out. Recently, the new administration changed the FCC regulation for network service providers to opt-out, similar to the FTC guidelines. Some consumers are quite concerned.

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