FTC Study Highlights How 'Big Telecom' Privacy Practices Are Even Worse Than 'Big Tech'

from the stating-the-obvious dept

I’ve noted for a few times that the very obvious dysfunction in “big tech” has proven to be the gift that keeps on giving for “big telecom.” While tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Facebook get the entirety of (often very justified) attention for dodgy business practices and terrible judgement, telecom has basically been forgotten in the DC Policy conversation. While lawsuits and Congressional posturing all focus on expanding oversight of “big tech,” “big telecom” and “big media” have been able to lobotomize most of the oversight of its own businesses, despite engaging in all the same (and sometimes worse) dubious business practices.

An FTC report on privacy reiterated that forgetting about telecom and media was a mistake. The FTC’s latest report on privacy noted largely what most people knew: telecom and cable companies collect an absolute ocean of data on U.S. consumers, then “sell” access to that data to third parties (they usually just call it something else) without being clear about it. They then provide users with opt out and transparency tools that are intentionally cumbersome, if they work at all. This data then bounces around the internet creating potential harm and abuse among countless parties, whether stalkers, law enforcement, people pretending to be law enforcement, or other corporations.

The FTC found that many ISP and cable companies “privacy policies” are utterly theatrical in nature. As in they’re designed to be so cumbersome as to deter people from using them (which companies then use as evidence that consumers “don’t care about privacy”). Other times the “opt out” tools don’t work at all, and in some cases they result in even more user data being collected. None of this is made particularly clear to the end user:

“…rapid consolidation has allowed ISPs to access and control a much larger and broader cache of consumer data than ever before, without having to explain fully their purposes for such collection and use, much less whether such collection and use is good for consumers.”

The FTC correctly noted that as network operators, ISPs and cable companies have access to way more data than even tech giants, app makers, or advertising companies. This includes DNS data, browsing data, clickstream data (how long you spend on each site down to the second), behavioral ad information, location data, race and ethnicity data, data on which TV programs you watch, and more. The report is quick to bring up the repeated location data scandals that have plagued the wireless industry, as well as the “zombie cookie” scandals at Verizon (and briefly AT&T) that involved embedding tracker headers in each user data packet to track them around the internet (again without informing them or letting them opt out):

“Unlike traditional ad networks whose tracking consumers can block through browser or mobile device settings, consumers cannot use these tools to stop tracking by these ISPs, which use ?supercookie? technology to persistently track users,? the FTC report said.

ISPs and cable companies will usually tell the press, lawmakers, and regulators they don’t “sell” access to this data, but they still technically do. They simply call the practice something else.

Like a network security, auditing, or marketing company will get access to “anonymized” (a worthless term) user datasets as part of a broader contract for “security consultation,” “marketing and brand awareness,” or “strategic consultation.” That company will get a bit more money for whatever their broader contract is, while also often being allowed to sell that data out the back door. It’s not technically “selling access to your data” because they’ve actively just called it something else, knowing that U.S. regulators are too feckless and understaffed to dig through a tangled web of intentional complication.

Of course the FTC’s report on the terrible privacy practices of the telecom industry is just a report. Actually doing something about the problem is another issue entirely. And every time we’ve tried to do something about the problem, lobbyists scuttle it in pretty short order (like those FCC broadband privacy rules killed by a heavily-lobbied Congress before they could even take effect, or even a basic federal privacy law). And, more recently, with telecom and media giant lobbying encouragement, the entirety of DC is so fixated exclusively on the problems with tech giants, telecom and media reform has effectively been forgotten entirely.

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Companies: at&t, comcast, verizon

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Comments on “FTC Study Highlights How 'Big Telecom' Privacy Practices Are Even Worse Than 'Big Tech'”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

'We in congress care about privacy... when it benefits us.'

If nothing else the utter apathy if not outright indifference towards privacy concerns not related to tech companies/platforms nicely exposes that all(or at least a majority of) the energy being spent dragging tech companies over the coals isn’t actually about privacy concerns at all and is instead merely PR theater, done not over any concern for the public but merely because it provides beneficial sound-bites for the politicians to point to and claim as evidence that they are Doing Something and Standing Up To Big Tech.

If the justification for such behavior really was preventing companies from exploiting their users/customers by grabbing all the data possible then it wouldn’t matter which company was guilty as they’d all get the same treatment, the fact that it only seems to apply to select companies makes clear that’s not the justification but merely the excuse.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: 'We in congress care about privacy... when it benefits us.'

Heh just heard a talking head on TV talking about how Amazon is stealing ideas and promoting their own knockoffs ahead of the people who made them originally… blah blah blah … And if they broke these corporations up into smaller units it could add more competition and better prices for consumers.

You can pluck out Amazon/Google/Etc. and insert cable/telcos/cell providers & suddenly that idea seems completely crazy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 'We in congress care about privacy... when it benefits us.'

the fact that it only seems to apply to select companies makes clear that’s not the justification but merely the excuse.

Well, if the Telcos remain as the only ones collecting user data, they will become the advertising giants that they want to be.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
nerdrage (profile) says:

go after telecos not tech

Bad behavior by tech companies is much less egregious than bad behavior by telcos. It’s possible to live without Google, Amazon and Facebook (I live without the latter just fine thank you) but try getting on the internet without a telco that probably has a monopoly on decent broadband in your area and THAT is the problem.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: go after telecos not tech

The government can tackle both Big Tech and Big Telecom at the same time. A strong privacy law paired with strong antitrust enforcement would affect both. It’s just a matter of whether Congress will stop listening to rich corporate lobbyists. (A lot of Congress members never will and need to get voted out.)
Just because you don’t actively use Google and Facebook doesn’t mean you’re safe from them. Unless your browser or extensions block third-party tracking, Big Tech will still get plenty of data off of you. (You’d better not be using Google’s search engine either.)

This comment has been deemed funny by the community.
Ninja says:


Are ISPs responsible for showing nipples to our children Masnick? (???) Because that’s where the line is drawn. It’s all the Big Tech and their evil algorithms. You syncophants are in Zuckeberg’s payroll to ignore facts. Nipples are bad and Big Telco is good and has Jesus’ (???) support. Sheesh.
*contains nonsense because that’s the only way you can defend telcos while demonizing tech companies.

Anonymous Coward says:

until the politicians who can actually do something about this abysmal state of affairs actually start thinking about their voters rather than their own bank balances and literally do something to correct the pathetic broadband industries, services and customers services, there will be no changes! the USA is one of the most corrupt governments with some of the most corrupt businesses in the World, but nothing changes because money talks! naming and shaming doesn’t even promote a response, let alone any change! if things weren’t so tragic, it would be pitiful, laughable! why the hell voters dont get things altered when the opportunity arises, i’ll never understand. false promises never achieve a thing but we always seem to fall for the same ol’ shit, every time! how ridiculous is that? then we just moan again!

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