By Sam DeLong
In April of 2017, President Trump signed an executive measure concerning new online privacy rules. The order aimed to repeal and fill gaps left by the Obama Administration’s former FCC Internet privacy effort created in the fall of 2016. However, President Trump’s new legislation received vexed criticism from privacy advocates, namely because the order enabled internet service providers, like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T, to sell user data without customer permission. While the new regulations changed certain rules with respect to online advertising and privacy, and sparked a new debate about “net neutrality,” President Trump’s action also shed light on the subvert, yet alarmingly booming, data brokerage industry––a business built on mining personal data.
The data brokerage industry thrives on what consumers look at. While a large amount of the information gathered comes from Internet browsing history, the possibilities reach as far as health care information and public court records. And whether someone is shopping online, searching for a restaurant, or researching a disease, the information sells. These buyers can range from merchandise companies to nefarious scam artists. Paul Boutin reported on one data brokerage firm that unwittingly sold a list of 19,000 elderly sweepstakes players to a group of online con artists. Paul Boutin, The Secretive World of Selling Data About You, Newsweek (May 30, 2016), http://www.newsweek.com/secretive-world-selling-data-about-you-464789. The value and appeal of this data is twofold: First, knowing exactly what an individual consumer is shopping for allows a company to direct bespoke advertisements to that individual. You may have noticed this yourself after seeing ads for your recently searched products on your Facebook newsfeed. The second use for this data lies in its prospect for amalgamation. By combining consumer information with demographic, geographic and over one hundred other information data types, marketing platforms are able to build consumer profiles and create both highly tailored marketing and even predictive data on these consumer profiles. Despite the endless and perhaps alarming possibilities, a large amount of this data turns out to be inaccurate. Nevertheless, companies buy it anyways because “inaccurate data is more helpful than no data.” Without any regulation on this industry, Internet service providers and companies alike are free to sell your data to anyone who wants it.
While relief from the data reaping might seem farfetched, one website, www.stopdatamining.me, offers a gathered list of the fifty top data brokerage houses and the requisite forms and links to “opt-out” of possible sale of your personal information. As one clicks through the lengthy list of forms, that in some cases makes you feel like you are giving more personal data than taking away, it begs the question of whether a more pro-active “opt-in” approach would be a better, more privacy-minded alternative. This was precisely one of the key features of the Obama Administration’s former “net neutrality plan.” So, why did President Trump do away with it? Many argue that the former restrictions were a broad overreach of government power, that attempted to ban what other companies like Facebook and Google are already allowed to do.
In this respect, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as many people aimlessly acquiesce to their data being harvested, concern for this subject mostly appears to come at an individual level. However, some policy makers are warning that our increasingly connected world opens up the door for data harvesting far beyond your browsing history. Pam Dixon, executive director of an international privacy advocacy group highlights that thousands of data points about you that go unregulated can affect what schools you or your children get into, how much you will pay for health insurance, and your likelihood for receiving a bank loan. Paul Boutin, The Secretive World of Selling Data About You, Newsweek (May 30, 2016), http://www.newsweek.com/secretive-world-selling-data-about-you-464789.
As our government grapples with this issue, it is necessary to remember that nothing we do online is truly private. While what we do, view, and say on the internet and our devices might feel like our own private right, we must remember that these commodities are platforms of privilege that exist to allow us to better connect with our world, and in this case, allow our world to better connect with us.
Student Bio: Sam DeLong is a second-year student at Suffolk University Law School. He is pursuing a J.D. as well as an advanced degree in taxation.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.