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.

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.

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?

 

Some clarity on what net neutrality is

The Twitter-verse is going bonkers over today’s report that the Federal Communications Commission is considering getting rid of net neutrality.  That view is erroneous. The concept or principle of net neutrality is not being abandoned. What Chairman Pai is proposing is that the FCC stop applying the telecommunications rules found in Title II of the Communications Act to enforce net neutrality.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, internet protocol was being introduced into phone networks. Also, new local phone entrants such as cable companies and local network bypass companies were bringing new services into local markets. The issue was, how do we bill for the exchange of traffic ie data and voice traffic in such a way as to encourage competition. Regulators decided to lightly regulate the agreements that these companies entered into to exchange traffic. Some companies decided to exercise what was once called “bill and keep.” In other words, they wouldn’t bill each other for the exchange of traffic.

Over past 25 years, this traffic has increased. Phone networks needed the additional revenue to invest in networks that could keep up with traffic as well as compete with bypass providers like cable companies. Also, content providers and search engines were developing and spawning more traffic. Net neutrality grew out of this. In short, it has never been about democracy for the consumer. That’s a bullshit argument that a strategic communications expert made up in order to generate support from regulators to keep the exchange of traffic between the Googles and the Verizons low to non-existent.

The consumer is being used if you will as an excuse. Rates are going to stay where they are. The real issue is, smaller content providers who can’t pay broadband companies or content delivery companies the fees to move their traffic will fall to the wayside.

Consumers are being duped by Facebook and Google into supporting their argument for net neutrality. It is ironic that those companies use the “open internet” concept to design apps that spy on you….