Let’s not confuse online privacy with tech business practices

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In yesterday’s post I made a few snarky comments about this week’s upcoming hearing before the US Senate Commerce Committee, featuring a half-dozen of the IT firms we love to hate: Amazon, Apple, Google, Twitter, AT&T and Charter Communications. Wednesday’s theatrics are billed as “Examining Safeguards for Consumer Data Privacy.”

In the leadup discussing Tom Wheeler, I noted one of his main policy goals is to find ways to give consumers “control of how their information is collected and how it is used.” I neglected to mention what Wheeler does not recommend:

“Losing control of personal information means losing control of the economic equilibrium that originally established the exchange of “free” services for targeted information. The solution is not to eliminate the exchange of information for value…” (emphasis added)

This position is in keeping with Wheeler’s view that killing the core tech business models is less likely to produce happiness than fixing them to benefit of all parties. Easier said than done.

So I was struck by what NY Times technology reporter Natasha Singer has to say this weekend about the Senate hearing and the way forward for consumers: summed up in the title, Just Don’t Call It Privacy.

Singer makes a distinction that deserves emphasis. Privacy and getting your data pilfered and exploited by Facebook et al. are two different things. Privacy is the right to be left unobserved — raising a slew of difficult issues that can be put aside by policymakers while they deal with the more immediate problem of controling your personal data in the online world. As Singer puts it:

“… unfettered data exploitation and its potential deleterious consequences — among them, unequal consumer treatment, financial fraud, identity theft, manipulative marketing and discrimination.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. This re-framing reminds us that “privacy” can often sound like a nebulous abstraction. But getting discriminated against in your shopping habits because of race, location or household income is a much more compelling target to shoot at, to borrow Silicon Valley’s preferred hunting metaphor. To say nothing of getting your political beliefs manipulated or your identity stolen.

Singer seems to share some of my skepticism about what the Senate wants to accomplish, and why the privacy window-dressing suits the retail tech agenda: make government go away. Apologize, promise to do better, add a few options to privacy settings — then back to business as usual while resuming the fight against privacy legislation tooth and nail.

As one expert is quoted as saying, the hearing should be about examining business practices, not privacy policies. The Republican-controlled panel may sound as though they like privacy as a social good — but they like business as a social good a helluva lot more. Little wonder the agenda is about protecting privacy rather than changing business practices.

Singer offers a few alarming examples of just how well manipulation works. Over a seven-week period, AT&T configured its DirecTV spying operation to track which of its subscribers bought antacids. Those subs were put on a list to be shown ads for antacids. AT&T was then able to find out exactly how much these same folks later spent on antacids — 725% more than the national audience not exposed to the ads in question. That’s the gift of “Addressable TV” as explained in an AT&T white paper covering antacids and lots of other worthwhile pharmaceuticals (pdf uploaded here.)

If you’re watching on Wednesday, remember to keep a supply of Tums handy.

D.E.