Opt-in, Opt-out policy appropriate for addressing online privacy

In May 2017, U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn introduced H.R.2520, the Browser Act, a bill designed to provide consumers with some control over the use of their personal information. Specifically, consumers that use broadband access services or websites or applications providing subscription, purchase, account, or search engine services are provided, depending on the sensitivity of personal information, the choice to opt-in or opt-out of policies used by these services to manage consumer information.

For sensitive information, opt-in approval must be expressly granted by the consumer. Sensitive information includes:

  • financial information;
  • health information;
  • information about children under the age of thirteen;
  • social security numbers information;
  • information regarding a consumer’s geo-location;
  • web browsing information: or
  • information on the history of usage of software programs or mobile applications.

Consumers must be provided the opportunity to give opt-out approval for non-sensitive information.

Mrs Blackburn’s intent with the legislation is to equalize broadband access providers and edge content providers under the eyes of the Federal Trade Commission, the federal agency responsible for consumer protection and anti-trust law enforcement. In my opinion, this is not a far off from former Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler’s goal of openness and transparency throughout the entire internet ecosystem; from consumer to broadband access provider to websites provided by edge providers.

What Mrs Blackburn’s bill also does is address information asymmetries, where edge content providers are viewed as having more knowledge on the value of consumer information that they extract from websites than the consumer does herself. The consumer cannot answer the question, “Is the value of the information I receive from online, x, greater than the value of the information that I give up, p, where that information is private?

It is not readily apparent whether H.R.2520 was also designed to save the consumer from asking this question: ” Why should I pay for an economic good i.e. privacy that isn’t Google’s to sell in the first place?”

Professor Caleb S. Fuller of Grove City College describes privacy as an economic good, something that the consumer wants more of. Most consumers are not willing to pay to protect this good, even though they know that firms like Google are collecting this information for free. For example, according to Professor Fuller’s research, 90% of Google’s users know that their “mouse droppings” are being tracked.While 29% of Google’s users don’t mind being tracked, 71% do. Their reasoning, according to Professor Fuller includes the fear of price discrimination based on their information; the receipt of spam advertising; the risk of identity theft; and the “dis-utility in just not knowing who knows what.”

One equitable solution, in my opinion, would be for Google and other edge providers to pay their subscribers to provide private data. Google could provide an offering schedule based on the sensitivity of the information it wishes to purchase. Consumers would have to consider the value of the privacy they give up in exchange for the value obtained from accessing web content. I wouldn’t expect every consumer to sell their data. Google will wisely set limits on its offers and a significant portion of consumers unable to get a price they want will settle for the old private data for access exchange that they have been conducting for two decades.

The opt-in, opt-out policy mitigates the work that the consumer should put in to determine the value of her data, but gives her the final say over how her private data can be used. Unfortunately this is also the down side where the market won’t be used to truly determine the real value that can be sold.

Listening to the whiny left on net neutrality can leave you jaded about “edge” technology

Over the past week, a number of progressive grass roots groups and some 21 state attorneys general have filed suit in federal appellate courts seeking to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of net neutrality rules that were promulgated in December 2015. This early in the process the petitions have laid out general assertions that the Commission’s decision to repeal was arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of agency discretion.

In other words, the Commission, dominated by three Republicans to two lone Democrats, was given to sudden and unaccountable mood swings as it went from determining in 2015 that broadband access providers should be viewed as old style telephone companies to last year’s decision where the Commission now views broadband access providers as information service providers.

I don’t see how the left’s position, that the Commission should use rules for regulating a point to point communications service, is to increase broadband access for insular communities like the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. According to Commission data, 66% of population in U.S. territories lacks access to 25 megabit per second download, 3 megabit per second upload broadband access services.  The flexibility required for deploying more advanced broadband access services in U.S. territories like the USVI and Puerto Rico cannot manifest itself in a regulatory framework that requires a body of regulators give approval or delay proceedings necessary for approving the introduction of new services.

The real arbitrary behavior took place when the Commission, led by Democrat Tom Wheeler, actually persuaded two other Democratic members of the board and some four million naive voters and taxpayers, that the Commission was actually in a position to ensure traffic neutrality throughout the entire internet; from the voter and taxpayer’s laptop to her favorite porn site hosted on a server located in the Azores. For Mr Wheeler to premise a ridiculous expansion of the Communications Act on the assertion that the Commission, via regulation, could ensure that all traffic be treated equally on the internet only resulted in creating false expectations regarding service among a public that couldn’t tell you exactly what net neutrality is in the first place.

The Commission, now led by Ajit Pai, has, if anything, reintroduced some reality into communications regulation. The first reality is that Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 is not necessary for regulating advanced, broadband internet access services in the 21st century. Second, the repeal of the 2015 Wheeler order recognizes that providing American consumers with the best access to a global, interconnected computer network means being able to leverage the openness of the internet to provide new services in a permission-less environment.

It is ironic that the edge providers that want their subscribers to access their content on the highest quality communications networks are willing to endure delays that will certainly arise under a Title II regime that requires permission to innovate at every turn.

State regulators probably can’t wait for the return of net neutrality rules

Sovereign individuals are seeking refuge in cyberspace. Minimizing state intervention in the goings on in cyberspace should be a legal priority for those that want to engage and prosper in a decentralized internet. Imposing old telephone rules on broadband access providers under the guise of ensuring the democratization of the internet will have the opposite effect. The rules won’t create more freedom. It will squelch it.

What net neutrality rule proponents take for granted is the actual logistics of Title II regulation and the slippery slope that will emerge from old style telephone regulation of the prime conduit to the digital economy.

First, let’s look at regulation of the access piece from consumer to their internet service provider. Consumers will want this connectivity regulated, especially consumers that use cable modem services for their access. State regulators, who have long abdicated their participation in regulating access services, will find themselves struggling to get back into the oversight game. One argument for validating participation in regulation will be the regulators expert status as a protector of consumer interests. Most consumers know nothing about networks and will need the guiding hand of state commissions on issues of network management and transparency.

I will not be surprised if state commissions start requiring some type of price schedule that is made available for public viewing. Also, state commissions will find reasons for opening investigations into how network management may be impacting pricing. Lawyers and external affairs specialists will be in great demand.

The Federal Communications Commission and state public service commissions will take a more active role in rate design. In jurisdictions where they were abandoned, tiered rates be reintroduced. To make up for the dearth of broadband deployment in rural areas, states will now see an opportunity to authorize higher rates per broadband access line in urban areas in order to keep rates lower in rural areas. As more Americans move to urban centers, they will have to contend not only with higher housing prices but higher communications prices as well.

And I don’t see why wireless communications being spared the onslaught either. Dumping your landline may not be enough to escape increases in mobile phone rates designed not only to fund additional broadband deployment but to maintain universal service access to wire-line services by low income folks.

America was moving in the right direction by innovating access to the internet and in turn getting rid of a layer of onerous communications regulation in then form of state regulators. Net neutrality invites them back in.

 

ISPs got there first. Let it go …

People and associations protesting against the Federal Communications Commission’s reversal of its network neutrality rules are really railing against the fact that current large broadband access providers entrenched themselves between the consumers of communications services and global networks in some before anyone else could. AT&T, Comcast, Charter, and Verizon used private capital and government charters and licenses to carve out territory within which they deployed the networks that connect consumers to that near invisible cloud of interconnected computers that we call the internet. I can’t hate on them for being first.

Net neutrality rules proponents want to dampen this advantage by preventing broadband access providers from blocking traffic from particular content providers; preventing broadband providers from slowing down the speed at which data flows from particular content providers; prohibiting content providers from entering agreements with broadband providers that allow a higher priority be placed on a particular content provider’s traffic; and making transparent to consumers the management practices of broadband providers including pricing, terms, and conditions of service.

The irony of these rules as proposed by allegedly freedom loving advocates is that they are designed to restrict how broadband access providers are to ascertain the value of the traffic that they are requested to transmit across their networks. Businesses assess the value of product, services, goods, information coming across property for determining how much of that value they can extract for themselves. The value extracted hopefully covers the cost of doing business plus profit. Broadband access providers do the same thing, assessing the value of the digital traffic coming across its networks and extracting value in the form of compensation. The greater the value, the greater the compensation.

On the consumer side, how she evaluates value is subject to her personal marginal utility of benefits, to coin the standard economic phrase and accompanying argument. To her, watching African American women twerk at a party on Instagram brings value, but should a doctor consuming video traffic that documents surgery have to risk her video running at a slower speed than a twerker’s in order to comply with a faulty notion of equality of content?

My bias is toward information that actually results in societal improvement, and while I have no problem enjoying the female form, society as a whole gets more mileage where information that helps us better manage our capital and health takes a priority to a cat video or gyrating ass.

Society also gets more mileage where producers and consumers are free to determine what communications they exchange and the terms and conditions of that exchange. This is the problem when we don’t separate content, which is designed to keep people momentarily contented, with information, which should be designed to continuously inform. We have a lot of content floating across our global interconnected networks, and network neutrality rules proponents use the freedom of expression argument to ensure this content gets equal treatment. Prioritizing content on the internet should not be looked at as an attack on freedom of expression, not when there are other outlets available for expression.

What the network neutrality rules proponents always leave out of their argument is the value of the expressions being shared. If they are that serious about their voices being heard over a particular medium such as the internet, then maybe they should put together the capital and construct the technology that ensures their equal access or expression.

Social media: Scourge of and escapism for Black America

Last week after ten years I gave Facebook the heave-ho. A friend from college sent me the invite to join back in 2007. I recall saying to him, “Kevin. Aren’t we too old for this bulletin board shit?” He responded that it appeared to be a great platform for keeping up with his kids. I said to myself that using it to keep in touch with my nieces seemed like a good idea. So I joined.

During that ten year period I connected online with interesting new people, high school and law school classmates. I have been fortunate to reconnect with family members and meet cousins on both sides of the family. In some ways it strengthened the ties within the lineages and helped drive home the importance of the tribe.

On the flip side, Facebook exposed a neurosis festering in Americans, and in particular Black Americans. Americans are divisive and lack critical thinking skills. By fueling the neurosis, Facebook, and I believe unintentionally, has contributed to the hyper-partisanship that the United States is experiencing. Facebook has made it very easy to allow its users to create near impenetrable silos thus discouraging worthwhile, thought expanding conversation and replacing it with ad hominem and vitriolic language, behavior that a civilized democracy is allegedly not supposed to reflect.

In short, Facebook has exposed an inconvenient truth; that civility is not the rule, but increasingly the exception to social interaction. It is not surprising that the Russian government was able to create fake pages and spread static loud enough to discombobulate the average voter. Facebook provides enough digital real estate for every Farmer Brown to build a silo of ignorance.

I used the word static as opposed to information. There is a reason. Facebook has built a business model on the ability of grab the attention of subscribers by encouraging them to exchange mostly valueless noise. The vast majority of static on Facebook cannot answer the question of “so what?” I believe that when you bombard the human brain consistently with meaningless noise, you erode a person’s critical thinking skills. And that is a scenario that Black Americans cannot afford.

Black American’s disproportionate use of social media is disconcerting because it feeds the narrative that Black Americans are not strategic thinkers and make political decisions based on their emotions. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are emotional cesspools, perfect places for those brave enough to opine on politics from an emotional, lack of depth perception. Making assertions based on static obtained from a cable news program is intellectually obscene given the political agendas of the cable programs on-air personalities.

Take for example the debate on net neutrality. The majority of comments on Facebook leading up to the 15 December 2017 vote were made by a vast majority of Facebook subscribers who had not read the net neutrality rules slated for repeal, had not read the section of the Communications Act upon which the rules were based, and were consistently conflating net neutrality principles with net neutrality rules. The two are different.

But when ignorance in social media post can go viral via a hashtag, the tide becomes unstoppable.

One can argue that I am being a bit uptight and prudish. Surely I should not expect every political media consumer to go out and read every bloody statute, regulatory code, etc., before making a decision. My answer is, yes, I do. Today’s political economy environment is where you extract the resources necessary for your physical, emotional, and mental survival. You are required to know it, just like your ancestors were required to understand the currents on the seas that they fished, and the terrain upon which the hunted and grew food.

Given African America’s lack of access to capital and the political abusive relationship it has with political parties, observing. extracting, analyzing, and distributing value-driven information upon which important decisions can be made is more important than digesting static filled content that passes through you as quickly as white rice, stripped of nutrients that keep you strong.

Senator Markey conflates net neutrality and artificial intelligence

The U.S. Senate’s commerce committee held a hearing on how artificial intelligence and machine learning could impact economic growth and American consumers. The panel did their best to assure the committee that Kristanna Loken would not be busting through walls terminating humans on her way to activating Skynet.

Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, made the audience aware that he was sponsoring a bill that would create a commission that would ask the tough questions about AI (excluding Texas senator Ted Cruz‘s reference to the aforementioned Skynet.)

The committee’s walk through geek and nerd park was pretty much uneventful. From a regulatory perspective, the panelists did not seem gung-ho about the introduction of burdensome regulations at this stage of AI’s development. While the concept of AI has been around since the mid 1950s, the advent of machine learning has raised the level of awareness and in some cases concern about AI. Instead of new rules, it was suggested that current rules we adjusted to address concerns about AI. Also, government could afford to do some learning on its own, gathering the expertise necessary for how best to integrate AI into society.

Also, the panel seemed to downplay concerns about AI displacing workers. It was argued that the technology would create other jobs directly needed by the technology sector, and work spawned by the demand the newly employed in the technology industry would create.

One panelist also tried to mitigate the “Skynet” concern by informing the committee about where actual AI work was being focused. AI is not concerned at this time with creating a general intelligence, that super, global brain depicted in movies. Rather, AI currently has a narrow focus on developing something more akin to an alien intelligence, creating a need for humans to communicate with AI-based technology on another level.

Unfortunately for my eardrums I had to suffer through Senator Ed Markey’s near enthusiastic willingness to conflate net neutrality and artificial intelligence. The Massachusetts Democrat asked one of the panelist, Dr Edward Felten, whether the expected vote by the Republican membership of the Federal Communications Commission to repeal net neutrality rules would negatively impact the development of artificial intelligence. To summarize Dr Felten’s answer: No, repeal of the rules would not.

How Markey or any of his net neutrality posse could confuse equal and transparent exchange of data between networks with the ability of computers to perform tasks usually performed by humans is a leap. Besides, given the billions of dollars invested in AI, would you really want any data generated by machines using artificial intelligence to have its traffic exchanged at an equal or lower priority than a cat video that took two hours and a couple hundred dollars to make?

 

Net neutrality rules proceeded from a no value premise

Back in the early 1990s, a higher value was placed by the consumer on her use of the internet and the dial-up services that were used to access it. It was expensive paying either per use or per minute or hour or day depending on your AOL package. The analog telephone service sometime required additional toll fees to access online providers. You didn’t take for granted your time used to access or be online. You made a cost=benefit analysis regarding the time online and paid for the value of the information you retrieved.

Our perspective on value for being online has changed. We have gone from waiting till after 9 pm or weekends to make a long distance call in order to save on toll fees to having bundled wire or wireless services that have eliminated toll calling. You no longer wait minutes for a 100-page document. Such a document can be downloaded in and shared with others around the globe in seconds. Our appreciation for the cost of being online has fallen so low that a significant number of Americans believe that using online resources to transmit videos of singing cats has equal value to data containing vital procedures for surgery.

Net neutrality has spawned the delusion that democracy requires equal treatment of all traffic, no matter how mundane, non-substantive, or perverse. It is time to reverse this perversion by imputing a value component to online access and data exchange. A crucial first step toward bringing back value is the repeal of the Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 open internet order and the no-value rules that it created.

True network neutrality cannot occur if agreements on the pricing of the exchange of traffic are overseen by the federal government.  Content delivery networks, internet information portals, and broadband access providers should negotiate traffic exchange freely and allow their assessment of the value of traffic exchange determine price. These carriers have data on the value the consumer places on their content and access services and can design the proper price points for recovering costs and generating profits.

For the end-use consumer, a day of reckoning will occur. Will they meet the new demand for price recovery issued by content providers by paying higher prices?  Or will they spend less time on the internet? Some may see value by paying additional fees to content providers. For those who don’t, they will threaten to abandon internet networks or reduce the time spent on them. This will provide content and network providers to become innovative by providing tiers of services that give the consumer additional flexibility on payment and usage.

In the end, network neutrality won’t “destroy democracy” on the internet. To be technical, democracy is about choosing political leaders and until we have elections via the internet, the democracy argument is nonsense. What we will have, with the elimination of these rules, is a conduit of commerce being subjected to market rules voluntarily entered into by its participants.