Privacy

by Karl Bode


Filed Under:
ads, arbitration, fcc, privacy, surveillance

Companies:
facebook, verizon



While Facebook Gets All The Hate, Verizon Continues To Show It's No Better, And Potentially Much Worse For Privacy

from the broader-context-please dept

Facebook certainly deserves ample criticism for its lax privacy standards and its decision to threaten news outlets that exposed them. That said, we've noted a few times now that the uneven press fixation on Facebook obscures the fact that numerous industries routinely engage in much worse behavior. That's particularly true of broadband providers (and especially wireless carriers), who routinely treat consumer privacy as a distant afterthought, with only a fraction of the total volume of media hyperventilation we saw during the Facebook kerfuffle.

Facebook's casual treatment of your data isn't some errant tech industry exception, it's the norm, making #quitFacebook an arguably pointless gesture if you still own a stock mobile phone. In the telecom industry, a disdain for consumer privacy is a cornerstone of their entire business model(s). Companies like AT&T and Verizon aren't just bone grafted to our government's domestic surveillance apparatus, they collect and sell everything from browsing to location data to absolutely anyone and everyone--with little to no real oversight, and opt out tools that may or may not actually work.

Verizon has been particularly busy on the anti-privacy front. You'll recall that the company was fined by the FCC for modifying wireless user data packets to track users around the internet without telling them. The company was engaging in this behavior for two years before security researchers even discovered it, and it took another six months of media criticism for Verizon to offer a simple opt out. Despite the wrist slap, a more powerful variant of this technology is still very much in play at Oath (AOL & Yahoo), Verizon's effort to compete with Google and Facebook in the media advertising wars.

Not long after that, Verizon played a starring role in gutting modest FCC privacy rules protecting consumers (spurred in part by Verizon's tracking tech). Those rules, which Verizon lobbyists dismantled last year, simply required that ISPs be transparent with what data they're collecting and who they're selling it to. When California tried to mirror the FCC's discarded privacy policies, Verizon, Facebook and Comcast lied to lawmakers, falsely claiming that modest privacy protections would harm children, increase internet popups, and embolden extremism. None of it was true.

More recently, Verizon has been facing numerous lawsuits over Yahoo hacks that exposed the data of roughly three billion consumers. And while this was before Verizon's ownership (Verizon wasn't informed of the hacks during negotiations, netting it a $350 billion discount), the company has since been actively trying to prevent customers from suing Oath (Yahoo) or Verizon over future breaches by using fine print to mandate binding arbitration:

"The new Oath terms of service "contain a binding arbitration agreement and class action and jury trial waiver clauses..., which are applicable to all US users," the terms say.

Congress has considered legislation to ban many mandatory arbitration clauses, but it hasn't followed through yet and the practice remains legal.

The AOL terms already contained a binding arbitration clause and class-action waiver before Verizon bought that company. But the Yahoo terms didn't previously contain such clauses."

Thanks to AT&T's Supreme Court victory in 2011 using contract fine print to erode consumer legal rights is now something we view as the norm. And while everybody can agree that the class action system has numerous problems, the system of binding arbitration is a terrible solution. Under binding arbitration, the arbiter rules for the company they work for the vast majority of the time, leaving consumers shit out of luck. While class actions often only net lawyers a nice new boat, they at least occasionally result in substantive change. Arbitration, in turn, is often more like consumer theater than justice.

The reality is that informed and empowered consumers are more likely to opt out of efforts to monetize their online behavior. And however breathlessly companies like Verizon and Facebook pretend to be dedicated to consumer privacy or policy solutions, they're going to fight tooth and nail against any policies -- even reasonable ones -- that could potentially hamstring that revenue. But however bad Facebook is and has been on privacy, Verizon routinely offers a master class when it comes to undermining efforts at anything even vaguely resembling a solution.


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