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Sorry, but nobody actually cares about your web browsing history

Published Apr 4th, 2017 11:48AM EDT
Internet Privacy Rules
Image: REYNOLDS/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

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You’d have to be living under a rock to have missed the current insanity over the repeal of proposed broadband privacy rules which swiftly made its way through Congress and gained the signature of President Trump on Monday. It’s an important piece of legislation, and does have some interesting implications in regards to how much leeway ISPs have in amassing the browsing habits of their customers without prior approval.

But it’s also extremely important to look at the facts, and when you do you’ll probably come to one simple conclusion: Nobody actually gives a damn about your browsing history.

The current uproar among privacy advocates and those blindly screaming into the void is that by rolling back the proposed privacy requirements — which demanded that consumers opt-in to having their data used or sold for advertising purposes — the entire world will now know what sites you visit, private medical data or banking information, or even what kind of pornography you fancy. Put simply, this is completely false.

Under the “new” rules — which, by the way, are almost identical to the current rules since the full impact of the Obama-era privacy stipulations wouldn’t even have taken effect until the end of 2017 at the earliest — your internet service provider can use whatever it gleans from your browsing history to paint a picture of who you are and then sell it to advertisers. If you think that sounds creepy I’m sorry to tell you that this kind of thing is, well, pretty much the standard.

Have you ever looked at something on Amazon — let’s say a decorative copper colander, just for fun — but decide not to buy it, then visited your Facebook news feed and see an Amazon ad for that exact same decorative copper colander? It’s not magic, it’s your browser tracking your habits and then syncing them with advertising algorithms from Amazon, Google, or whoever else, to deliver promos for things you’re more likely to buy.

What ISPs are doing with your browsing data is more or less the same; they’re not selling your data to advertisers, they’re selling an educated guess about what kind of ads you’re going to respond to. It’s called targeting. Comcast, Charter, Verizon, and the rest of them don’t wrap up your URL history in a ZIP file and send that off into the ether. They use their own algorithms to categorize you in the hopes that an advertiser will pay a little bit more for a very specific type of consumer to market to.

By grouping you into a demographic you are more valuable as a target for specific ads and less valuable for others. When social networks and app developers do this kind of thing they frame it as “customizing the experience,” because they have the benefit of being able to present the idea to you however they want. Mega-huge ISPs don’t exactly have the same privilege, and the result is the current state of affairs.

Your “data” is already behind a very thick layer of ambiguity by the time a third-party advertiser or even an in-house ad group sees it, simply because the minutia of your browsing habits, including the specific kind of pornography you enjoy, is completely and utterly worthless to them in a business sense. When an ISP syncs what it knows about my browsing history with an advertiser’s stock of potential ads to serve me, the advertiser doesn’t see “Mike Wehner likes iPhones and bikes,” it — and by “it,” I mean the software serving the ads, because no actual human is looking at your specific demographic and picking an ad by hand — sees something like “this ad spot for this type of user responds best to smartphones and sporting goods.”

This is why the misguided efforts to “buy” the browsing histories of members of Congress is a fool’s errand and also literally impossible. That campaign, by the way, has passed $200,000 in funding for the purpose of buying something that cannot be bought.

Several companies have come out in the past 24 hours to say that, despite what everyone is fearing, they will not be selling the private data of their customers to anyone. “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, told Reuters. Verizon and Comcast quickly followed suit with similar sentiments.

Of course, with so much distrust of large companies there are some who claim that these ISP are just lying to save face. The truth of the matter, no matter how much you don’t feel like admitting it, is that nobody really wants to know what kind of porn you watch or exactly how many minutes you spend watching cat videos on YouTube. Your browsing habits are completely worthless to pretty much everyone, and it’s only being used in a roundabout way of guessing what kind of pointless junk you might want to buy. Welcome to the real world.

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