Christian Huitema's blog

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Privacy’s Reductio Ad Absurdum

01 Apr 2017

For Internet Privacy advocates like me, the recent vote by Congress to authorize ISP to sell customer information is disheartening. But it is also a proof that the current attacks on privacy in the Internet are not sustainable, a "reduction ad absurdum" of what will happen if the current trends continue. The press is full of discussions about the evil of telecommunication companies, and the congressmen that they lobbied. The blame there is well deserved, but the ISP are actually minor players in the "war on privacy". The major players? Companies like Facebook and Google, and generally the "advertisement funded" business model pushed by Silicon Valley investors. Indeed, the main argument of the ISP lobbyist was that if Google can benefit from collecting private information, why shouldn't Verizon or AT&T? The lobbyists demonstrated that they could sway Congress with that argument, no doubt helped with a generous helping of "campaign donations."

I don't know whether the congressmen understood the consequences of their actions. Basically, they voted to authorize a free for all. Anybody who can grab your personal information is authorized by law to sell it. The state will not be picking favorites between ISP, search engines, social media providers, or car ride companies. What goes for one, goes for everybody. Of course, that's very scary. In the name of more efficient advertisements, companies will collect your browsing history, your interests, your lists of friends, the various places that you visit, and of course everything that you purchased. In fact, there is no reason to stop at advertisements. The prospects are endless. Someone will sell the data to hiring managers, to make sure that they select prospective employees with the right "cultural fit" with the companies. The managers of political campaigns will buy the data and tune individual messages based on the biases of individual voters. Banks will obtain information before agreeing on the loan. Secret polices will probably get their countries to pass law giving them free access to the advertisers' data. And because everybody can collect the data, there will be very few places to hide.

So, in a sense, there is a silver lining to Congress' decision. In its absurdity, it demonstrates to our society the extreme danger of the business model pushed by Silicon Valley in the last 20 years. A classic "reductio ad absurdum". If one company does it, it is probably not too much of a problem. But if you allow one company to do it, you must allow all of them. And if all of them do it, the result is patently absurd.