Tales of the Sausage Factory

Better Privacy Protections Won’t Kill Free Facebook.

Once upon a time, some people developed a new technology for freely communicating with people around the world. While initially the purview of techies and hobbyists, it didn’t take long for commercial interests to notice the insanely popular new medium and rapidly move to displace the amateur stuff with professional content. But these companies had a problem. For years, people had gotten used to the idea that if you paid for the equipment to access the content, you could receive the content for free. No one wanted to pay for this new, high quality (and expensive to make) content. How could private enterprise possibly make money (other than selling equipment) in a market where people insisted on getting new content every day — heck, every minute! — for free?

 

Finally, a young techie turned entrepreneur came up with a crazy idea. Advertising! This fellow realized that if he could attract a big enough audience, he could get people to pay him so much for advertising it would more than cover the cost of creating the content. Heck, he even seeded the business by paying people to take his content, just so he could sell more advertising. Everyone thought he was crazy. What? Give away content for free? How the heck can you make money giving it away for free? From advertising? Ha! Crazy kids with their whacky technology. But over the course of a decade, this young genius built one of the most lucrative and influential industries in the history of the world.

 

I am talking, of course, about William Paley, who invented the CBS broadcast network and figured out how to make radio broadcasting an extremely profitable business. Not only did Paley prove that you could make a very nice living giving away content supported by advertising, he also demonstrated that you didn’t need to know anything about your audience beyond the most basic raw numbers and aggregate information to do it. For the first 80 or so years of its existence, broadcast advertising depended on extrapolated guesses about total aggregate viewing audience and only the most general information about the demographics of viewership. Until the recent development of real-time information collection via set-top boxes, broadcast advertising (and cable advertising) depended on survey sampling and such broad categories as “18-25 year old males” to sell targeted advertising — and made a fortune while doing it.

 

We should remember this history when evaluating claims by Facebook and others that any changes to enhance user privacy will bring the digital world crashing down on us and force everyone to start paying for content. Setting aside that some people might actually like the option of paying for services in exchange for enhanced privacy protection (I will deal with why this doesn’t happen on its own in a separate blog post), history tells us that advertising can support free content just fine without needing to know every detail of our lives to serve us unique ads tailored to an algorithms best guess about our likes and dislikes based on multi-year, detailed surveillance of our every eye-muscle twitch. Despite the unfortunate tendency of social media to drive toward the most extreme arguments even at the best of times, “privacy regulation” is hardly an all or nothing proposition. We have a lot of room to address the truly awful problems with data collection and storage of personal information before we start significantly eating into the potential revenue of Facebook and other advertising supported media.

 

Mind you, I’m not promising that solid and effective privacy regulation would have no impact on the future revenue earning power of advertising. Sometimes, and again I recognize this will sound like heresy to a bunch of folks, we find that the overall public interest actually requires that we impose limits on profit making activities to protect people. But again, and as I find myself explaining every time we debate possible regulation in any context, we don’t face some Manichean choice between libertarian utopia and a blasted regulatory Hellscape where no business may offer a service without filling out 20 forms in triplicate. We have a lot of ways we can strike a reasonable balance that provides users with real, honest-to-God enforceable personal privacy, while keeping the advertising-supported digital economy profitable enough to thrive. My Public Knowledge colleague Allie Bohm has some concrete suggestions in this blog post here. I explore some broader possible theoretical dimensions of this balance below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Is Net Neutrality (And Everything Else) Not Dead Yet or Pining For the Fjords? Contemplating Trump’s Telecom Policy.

The election of Donald Trump has prompted great speculation over the direction of telecom policy in the near future. Not surprisingly, everyone assumes that the primary Republican goal will be to completely roll back net neutrality and just about every other rule or policy adopted by the Wheeler FCC — perhaps even eliminating the FCC altogether or scaling back it’s authority to virtual non-existence. Why not? In addition to controlling the White House, Republicans have majorities in the Senate and the House.  Jeff Eisenach, the head of Trump’s FCC transition team (now called “Landing Teams”), has been one of the harshest critics of the FCC under both Wheeler and Genachowski. So it is unsurprising to see a spate of articles and blog posts on the upcoming death of net neutrality, broadband privacy, and unlicensed spectrum.

 

As it happens, I have now been through two transitions where the party with the White House has controlled Congress. In neither case have things worked out as expected. Oh, I’m not going to pretend that everything will be hunky-dory in the land of telecom (at least not from my perspective). But having won things during the Bush years (expanding unlicensed spectrum, for example), and lost things in the Obama years (net neutrality 2010), I am not prepared to lay down and die, either.

 

Telecom policy — and particularly net neutrality, Title II and privacy — now exists in an unusual, quantum state that can best be defined with reference to Monty Python. On the one hand, I will assert that net neutrality is not dead yet. On the other hand, it may be that I am simply fooling myself that net neutrality is simply pining for the fjords when, in fact, it is deceased, passed on, has run up the curtain and joined the choir invisible.

 

I give my reasons for coming down on the “not dead yet” side — although we will need to work our butts off to keep from getting clopped on the head and thrown into the dead cart. I expect the usual folks will call me delusional. However, as I have said a great deal over the years: “If I am delusional, I find it a very functional delusion.”

 

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Broadband Privacy Can Prevent Discrimination, The Case of Cable One and FICO Scores.

The FCC has an ongoing proceeding to apply Section 222 (47 U.S.C. 222) to broadband. For those unfamiliar with the statute, Section 222 prohibits a provider of a “telecommunications service” from either disclosing information collected from a customer without a customer’s consent, or from using the information for something other than providing the telecom service. While most of us think this generally means advertising, it means a heck of a lot more than that — as illustrated by this tidbit from Cable One.

 

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Phone Industry To The Poor: “No Privacy For You!”

Back in June, the FCC released a major Order on the Lifeline program. Lifeline, for those not familiar with it by that name, is the federal program started in the Reagan era to make sure poor people could have basic phone service by providing them with a federal subsidy. Congress enshrined Lifeline (along with subsidy programs for rural areas) in 1996 as Section 254 of the Communications Act. While most of the item dealt with a proposal to expand Lifeline to broadband, a portion of the Order dealt with the traditional FCC Lifeline program.

As a result, the wireless industry trade association, CTIA, has asked the FCC to declare that poor people applying for Lifeline have no enforceable privacy protections when they provide things like their social security number, home address, full name, date of birth, and anything else an identity thief would need to make your life miserable. Meanwhile, US Telecom Association, the trade association for landline carriers, has actually sued the FCC for the right to behave utterly irresponsibly with any information poor people turn over about themselves — including the right to sell that information to 3rd parties.

 

Not that the wireless carriers would ever want to do anything like that, of course! As CTIA, USTA, and all their members constantly assure us, protecting customer privacy is a number one priority. Unless, of course, they’re running some secret experiments on tracking without notifying customers that accidentally expose customer information to third parties. Oh, and it might take longer than promised to actually let you opt out once you discover it. And in our lawsuit against the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules, they explicitly cite the inability to use customer information for marketing, the inability to sell this information to third parties, and the requirement to protect this information generally as one of the biggest burdens of classifying broadband as Title II. But other than that, there is no reason to think that CTIA’s members or USTA’s members would fail to respect and protect your privacy.

 

So how did the Lifeline Reform Order which most people assumed was all about expanding Lifeline to broadband became the vehicle for the phone industry to tell poor people they have no privacy protections when they apply for a federal aid program? I explain below . . .

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