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March 30, 2017
Overturning FCC Privacy Ruling: A Marketer’s Viewpoint
March 30, 2017
The United States Senate voted last week to reverse broadband privacy rules put in place last October requiring ISPs to get consent from consumers before selling or sharing their Web browsing data and other private info with third parties. The vote was split decidedly along party lines with the deciding edge going to the Republican-controlled Senate. A similar result transpired yesterday in the U.S. House of Representatives, again with the edge going to the Republican majority. All that remains is for President Trump to sign off on the measure to revoke the privacy rules and prevent the FCC from enacting anything similar with regard to privacy in the future. The president of course could veto the measure, but that's not too likely to happen.The outrage at this development has been swift and palpable, again splitting along party lines with much of the backlash coming from the left. Politics aside, this is an issue that affects us all and as difficult as it may be, it’s worth examining things from both sides – consumers and business, not simply left or right.The full extent of what this ruling will have on our privacy remains to be seen, though on its surface, grants ISPs wide latitude in what they can collect and how they can utilize it. My Spidey senses tingle whenever I hear suggestions that it's OK for my SSN to be passed around like a bottle of Ripple at a hobo camp. Collecting and selling my browsing history is on the creepy side, but it’s probably not something I’m going to march in protest over. So much of our personal information is being scooped up, stored in data warehouses, and then mined for various purposes that this move seems to be just more of the same. You only need to have a quick look at the multitude of grocery store “bonus” cards dangling from your key chain to realize how common data collection has become.A big part of the outrage and concern over this development is that companies such as Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and other ISPs can sell your personal data to anyone with enough cash including the U.S. government. Guess what? The government probably already has much of this data already about you. Think NSA and its sweeping of private communications for data. The government can also get free and ready access to such data via a subpoena or court order. And the fear that an individual with malicious intentions can purchase your info seems unfounded. ISPs have their own rather strict privacy policies that they would be at risk of violating if they suddenly offered user data for sale to the highest bidder. What’s more likely is that this data will be used for marketing purposes. The names Google, Facebook, and Microsoft come to mind as business that have been using personal user data for advertising for a while now.Broadband providers have wanted a cut of the action that has been granted to those at the edge (content providers). Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have been offering online advertising for years. Like “banner blindness” from the early days of the web, you’ve probably become conditioned to tune out most of these advertisements, but make no mistake; this industry generates over $72 billion annually. It’s little wonder that ISPs want their cut.Allow me to speculate for a moment on where things could potentially head when ISPs finally receive the green light to hoover our personal data and turn it into cash. As a digital marketer, I have used and continue to use online advertising from the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. Facebook has received a lot of heat and scrutiny for their collection of personal info from users, but the flip side is that their demographic targeting available to advertisers is second to none. Age, gender, relationship status, location, and even income and family size are all selectable. This places incredible power in the hands of advertisers and the consequences for me when wearing my user hat is that I see Facebook ads geared to my interests or generational cohort. I’m even stalked by those biodegradable poop bags I browsed on Amazon for my dogs via Facebook’s remarketing pixel. Am I offended or threatened? The honest answer is, no. But this is mainly because I know that it’s difficult for advertisers to identify me personally, though I know it’s certainly possible.What I believe ISPs will have a look at is bundling user behavior data such as browsing history into regional lists much like old school mailing list brokers have done for ages. The upshot could possibly mean more targeted junk mail. Ho hum. What I think would be much more interesting is if any new online advertising networks emerge from this. I’m just not sure how this could be accomplished by non-content producers. Perhaps some partnerships will emerge between content producers and ISPs. A partnership between Comcast and Facebook would truly be an unholy alliance. Using Comcast again as an example: TV commercials targeted to specific subscribers based on their browsing history would take creepiness to an entirely new level.My intention is not to downplay the magnitude of this development. It’s actually an extension of the attack on Net Neutrality, which is something I feel much more strongly about and is something that will be gaining more attention and controversy in the coming months. The argument from those who support reversing the FCC privacy ruling argue that it will open up opportunities for businesses thus creating more jobs and boosting the economy. I generally run from anything that smells like Trickle Down Economics, but I see some truth in this argument when I view it from the perspective of a marketer. The same reasoning doesn’t hold for me in the attack against Net Neutrality and speaking just for myself, it’s important to consider all sides of the issues which are rushing forth like water from a fire hose at us right now. From there, we can begin to prioritize our battles based on those that pose the most imminent and dire threats.