Friday 31 March 2017

Not everything has to be mandatory

Back in the days of dial-up, my mother-in-law had a really cheap ISP service. She didn't pay very much, and the ISP put ads on top of everything. There was some kind of ad bar at the bottom of the browser no matter what site she was on. But the ads didn't bother her and she wanted a cheap service. They bothered me whenever I used internet when visiting at her place, but I wasn't the one paying for it.

It was totally legal to have that. Did every ISP do it? No. Just that one. Everybody else signed up with other ISPs and didn't have that - just the normal ads. But imagine if it had been banned, then somebody proposed removing the ban. It's easy to imagine horror stories about every ISP doing that, until you think through the logic of it.

And so I don't get the fooferah around the American legal changes around ISPs and client privacy. Some people who don't care about their browser trails will be able to get cheaper internet service in exchange for their ISPs being able to sell on their histories to advertisers for better targeted ads. Others won't. I didn't sign up for my mother-in-law's ISP but I'm glad she was able to; I wouldn't sign up for a less privacy-friendly ISP but am happy enough for others to, if that's their preference.

I talked with NBR Radio about it Thursday; I expect it'll go up sometime soon if it isn't already. There are some details about the American proposal that I don't know about and that do matter. If the ISP can sell your prior browser history without your knowing about it or consenting, that would be bad. But so long as it only applies on a forward-looking basis, then the market will segment between those who care about browser privacy and those who don't. And even if it doesn't, consumer backlash against selling prior history surely will also matter if people actually care about it that much.

I'd expect this even in the case of cities where broadband competition is limited. Even a monopolist does better by segmenting the market - although in that case, the ISP could extract more than it ought to be able to from privacy conscious consumers. In competitive broadband markets, it shouldn't matter.

A policy letting ISP clients choose lower cost packages in exchange for less privacy worries me a lot less than policies mandating that ISPs keep years of client data on file for the government to snoop through without the browser's consent.

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