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Online privacy has taken a hit, but does it matter?

Online Privacy May Be Dead, but the Sky Isn’t Falling

April 4, 2017

As expected, President Donald Trump signed a law on April 3, 2017 that repeals the online privacy regulations enacted under the Obama administration. This means internet service providers will continue to be allowed to track your browsing history and sell it to third parties without your consent. While many critics are lamenting this blow to internet privacy, is it truly the end of the world? Maybe, maybe not.

Marketers Are Buying, but Who’s Selling?

Marketers Are Buying, but Who’s Selling?

We do not sell our broadband customers’ individual web browsing history. We did not do it before the FCC’s rules were adopted, and we have no plans to do so.

- Gerard Lewis, Comcast's chief privacy officer

Just a few days after Congress voted to repeal the FCC regulations, the “big names” in broadband internet issued statements claiming they won’t be selling personal web browsing histories. In statements made to Reuters, Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T all indicated that they were not and would not be selling customers’ browsing histories to anybody. Comcast’s chief privacy officer, Gerard Lewis, stressed the company’s history and intentions regarding online privacy.


We will not sell your personal information to anyone, for any purpose. Period.

- AT&T Privacy Statement

Verizon’s spokesman Richard Young made a similar statement. Even AT&T’s privacy statement makes it clear the broadband provider has not been, is not currently, and will not be selling your data.

In fact, AT&T insists that its future plans don’t include infringing on anybody’s online privacy. In a March 31 blog post, AT&T spokesman Bob Quinn wrote:

We had the same protections in place the day before the Congressional resolution was passed, and we will have the same protections the day after President Trump signs the CRA into law.  The Congressional action had zero effect on the privacy protections afforded to consumers.

- AT&T Spokesman Bob Quinn

If Your Internet Provider Did Sell Your Data, Would It Really Hurt You?

If Your Internet Provider Did Sell Your Data, Would It Really Hurt You?

Now, let’s assume for a moment that your internet service provider did decide to sell your browsing history to a marketer. Would that really affect you all that much? Honestly? If you use Google, Facebook, or Amazon, your history within those sites is already being tracked. You get targeted advertisements just about every day, and research shows that most of you actually prefer it that way.

A 2013 study by Mark Sableman and two researchers at the University of Missouri, Heather Shoenberger and Esther Thorson, came out with some interesting findings. The study’s report appeared in the August 2013 issue of the Media Law Resource Bulletin.

In short, their research revealed that consumers actually prefer advertisements that are relevant to their interests–in other words, targeted ads. That is to say, consumers don’t seem to care about online privacy except in a theoretical way. In practice, their concerns are much less pronounced. This is especially true for the younger generation, which the study focused on, but also applies to older consumers.

The article goes on to address the perceived antipathy consumers have for targeted advertisements.

The fact that a group of young adult Internet users would clearly prefer “tailored” advertising to “non-tailored” messages contradicts the assertion that consumers “reject tailored advertising.” In fact, they prefer relevant to irrelevant advertising.

- Consumer Attitudes Toward Relevant Online Behavioral Advertising: Crucial Evidence In The Data Privacy Debates

I Guess the Sky Isn’t Falling After All

I Guess the Sky Isn’t Falling After All

With this information in hand, it’s pretty clear that President Trump’s signature on the repeal of the Obama-era FCC regulations doesn’t really mean anything. Yes, it’s true that online privacy has been dealt a major blow, in theory. In practice, though, nothing is really going to change. The major players aren’t selling your data now, and won’t do it in the future. Even if they did, you likely wouldn’t mind the outcome–advertisements that were more relevant to your personal interests.

For more about the Internet privacy rules and their repeal, check out these articles