This week on Too Embarrassed to Ask, Recode’s Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode are joined by Recode Senior Editor for Policy and Politics Tony Romm for some straight talk on what all this privacy stuff means. With net neutrality getting axed and consumer data up for grabs, there are so many important questions and answers, we decided to make a two-part podcast on the topic.
You can read some of the highlights from their discussion at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, Executive Editor of Recode.
Lauren Goode: I’m Lauren Goode, Senior Tech Editor at The Verge.
You’re listening to To Embarrassed To Ask, where we answer all of your embarrassing questions about tech.
It could be anything like will the new Samsung Galaxy battery be as problematic as the last phone’s or if I’m dumb if I don’t want a smart home or why in the world did Yahoo and AOL decide to call their newly formed company Oath and why didn’t Kara Swisher stop them first?
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Today we’re bringing you Part 1 of our first-ever two-part series on Too Embarrassed To Ask.
It’s a two-parter. This is very exciting.
It’s very exciting. We were originally going to do this as one episode but there’s really just too much to say about this topic, which is privacy and security. If you’ve been following the news lately in the U.S. then you know that this is a hot-button issue right now.
Well, it’s a hot issue all the time but recent moves by the Trump administration to deny us all our privacy by helping internet companies gather more data on us has been at the forefront.
I have no idea what you’re talking about.
All kinds of things. As we move into AI and all kinds of stuff, there’s all kinds of issues around trust and privacy, especially as we put stuff in the home and how the government interacts with it and how the companies, what rights they have. It’s a big issue and this happens to be an administration that just loves invading privacy quite a bit.
That’s right. We definitely knew during the campaign season that increased surveillance and maybe some changes to the way we look at privacy, even things like net neutrality were a possibility and now we are within our first 100 days of the administration and already things are happening really fast.
We’re thrilled to have Recode’s new Senior Policy and Politics Editor, Tony Romm, joining us from New York. He’s going to be talking to us about internet policy. Next week we’re going to answer more questions about security, but this week we’re talking about policy changes that are happening as a result of the administration. Tony, welcome to Too Embarrassed To Ask.
Tony Romm: Hey, guys.
KS: Glad to hear from you. You’ve been doing some great stories for us and I think we’re genius to hire you. I feel very smart about that.
LG: I have one question to start and don’t be too embarrassed to answer, Tony. What’s it like working for Kara? It’s been a while for me so I forgot.
Oh my God. Well, I’ve only been here for two weeks so I can’t tell you, but I’ll be in San Francisco next week so we can all hang out and find out.
KS: All right. Okay. Good. “It’s fantastic,” is the answer, Tony. That’s the immediate answer. The only answer that you need. Yes, all right?
KS: Okay, because I’m having you under surveillance right now so I know exactly what you’re doing.
Oh, that’s fine.
KS: Let’s start with this idea of what’s going on right now. You’ve written a lot about it. Let’s talk about ISPs first. Early this week, President Donald Trump officially signed a bill, quite quietly, that repealed some internet privacy rules around how much information is shared about the websites we visit. Can you gives an explainer, please?
Yeah, of course. So we have to rewind the clock a little bit back to the Obama Administration. When Democrats, which controlled the FCC at the time, felt that there weren’t enough protections in place for consumers, that a company like a Comcast or a Verizon or an AT&T could do too much with your personal information and had too much visibility into the sorts of things that you look at on the internet and the kind of apps that you download. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler at the time put forward a plan that essentially required internet providers to get your permission and opt-in consent before they take that personal information and sell it to third parties, including advertisers. The rules also had some restrictions in place about how companies protect your information from hackers.
At the time, Republicans couldn’t stand the rules. They voted against them. They felt that they were unfair and they were burdensome to telecom companies. And predictably telecom companies felt the same thing, that it wasn’t the FCC’s place to say those sorts of things, that federal laws were perfectly fine and well equipped to handle the challenges posed by the digital age.
Telecom companies mounted a very expensive lobbying campaign beginning last year on Capitol Hill throughout the administration, leading to the votes that we saw over the course of the better part of the past couple of weeks, where the House and the Senate voted against those rules to overturn what the FCC put in place. Then President Donald Trump ultimately signed it a few days ago.
LG: Now this means that the ISPs, the internet service providers that we all use and we pay for, we’re already paying for them, and now they’re also going to take our browsing data and they can sell it to marketers without our explicit permission.
They can do that and they could do that. The important thing to remember about the FCC’s privacy rules is that they didn’t go into effect. While they were passed last year under a Democratic administration, the lion’s share of them, the heart of this notion where they had to ask your permission to take your information and sell it to third-party advertisers, that wasn’t going to go into effect until the end of this year. So yes and no: On one hand, nothing has changed. On the other hand, everything has changed. Those companies can now start to do different things with your data without asking your permission beforehand.
LG: I have a question that I’m embarrassed to ask, honestly.
KS: Are you?
LG: I feel like a Luddite asking it, but when I think about ISPs selling my browsing data I think about, okay, I pay for service at home. I’m sitting at home on my laptop and, you know, I’m browsing on Chrome, wherever I browse, right? Fortunately I’m not browsing very nefarious things, but that data’s now available. What about mobile? What about wireless companies that basically are powering the data service on your mobile device and you’re browsing on mobile? In some cases your wireless provider and your ISP are the same company, right? How does that work?
This is the argument that a lot of folks made, right? It was this idea that internet providers of any stripe, whether we’re talking about wireless folks or the old wireline business, the service that you have at your apartment, your house or whatnot, had great visibility into a very large number of things that you did. With a company like Google, for example, if you don’t like what Google’s doing with your personal information, you’re probably in some trouble because Google does a lot of stuff, but you can just choose not to use it.
But with an internet service provider, it’s a lot different. They can see all of the addresses you visited, all of the websites that you visited. This was one of the big arguments here, the fact that whether we’re talking wireless or wireline, as we call it in the crazy terrible world of D.C. that I just left, that they had great visibility into you. That’s why we’re now starting to see folks ask these questions, especially at the state level, about whether internet service providers writ large should do more to protect your privacy.
KS: When you’re talking about this idea, as we get more stuff in the home, not just mobile but all these devices, Google stuff, Amazon stuff ...
LG: Voice searches.
KS: ... voice search and everything else, this just sort of favors them. Is this something that can be pushed back in another administration as abuses become clear? Because it just seems like once they get in, they’re in.
Yeah, well, there are really two things here. The first is that tech companies weren’t touched by the FCC’s rules. Facebook and Google and Amazon and so forth, they weren’t really affected by the rules put into place by the FCC that require companies to get permission to sell information to advertisers. In fact, that was one of the arguments that telecom companies like an AT&T and a Verizon and a Comcast had as these things were debated. They felt that they were being unfairly singled out while the rest of Silicon Valley could run amuck and do whatever they wanted to do with your personal information.
But I think the issue you raise is completely correct. It’s this idea that tech companies have even greater visibility into your lives as well. When we’re talking about connected cars or smart home technologies and so forth, the kinds of data that they’re able to collect is much different. And if you talk to privacy rights folks, they’ll tell you it’s just as concerning and it’s just as troubling for consumer privacy.
KS: How do privacy groups think of what happened last week? Are they just having coronaries or what?
Oh, yeah. It’s like full-stage, complete heart attack. Folks are freaking out and foaming at the mouth about it, but none of this was a shock, right? Many of the telecom companies said they were going to push for this. We knew Republicans didn’t like it. We heard that they were going to take aim at it once Republicans won Congress in November and there was no reason to believe that the Trump administration wasn’t going to sign the thing at the end of the day.
But, you know, privacy folks are still quite upset. They’re still sounding the alarms about what happened in Washington just a couple of days ago. But many of them have now shifted their fight to the states. They seem to think that state regulators can do what Washington didn’t do.
KS: California. California’s doing lots of things. Like California or other states. Yeah.
California isn’t even the main one. The main one today was Maryland, actually. Maryland had a hearing at the state level, and this was Thursday that they were having this conversation and looking at whether they should put into place rules that were akin to what the FCC wanted. We have Minnesota and Montana and some others that are exploring similar things.
But whether it’s California or somewhere else, the consideration is the same. If one state does it, what does it mean for other states and what does it mean for companies that operate there? It’s going to be a hard slog, but privacy folks still seem to think for some reason that the states are going to provide them relief.
KS: At least relief in some way.
LG: Now on next week’s episode we are going to talk a little bit more about things you can do to protect your privacy, specifically. But Tony, in the near term, if you’re a concerned consumer, what would you say you could do at this point, whether politically or technically?
I think you have to read more. Whether it was the beginning of this debate when the FCC was debating rules or now as we’re dealing with the impact of what Republicans in Washington have done, there’s a great lack of information on the part of consumers about what companies are doing, how much information they’re collecting and ultimately what they’re doing with it. It’s remarkable to me that there’s been so many headlines that say that consumers have been stripped of some rights when the rules never actually went into effect.
LG: Never went into place.
Yeah. That’s just one slice of this. But then you layer it on. It’s like most folks don’t know what Google collects about them. Most folks don’t know how online advertising works. Most folks don’t know why they see the things that they do in their News Feed and they’re not asking those questions about smart home stuff or self-driving cars. We find ourselves in which we can talk about legislative strategies and ways to fix law but none of that stuff happens if consumers aren’t educated about what companies are doing with their information and what they could be doing differently with their information.
KS: I saw a trailer just this week for — We talked about it, Tony, on Slack — for “The Circle.”
KS: I know the book wasn’t good but the topics brought up in the movie are, and Tom Hanks is hugely sinister. He feels sinister as the CEO of The Circle, where they’re talking about cameras everywhere and the ability to glean data and stuff. It sort of felt like ... At the time that book came out, you’re like, “Eh.” Now I’m like, “Oh yeah.” You know what I mean? But it actually was very effective for the moment. I feel like it’s a very for-the-moment movie that’s coming out. We’ll see how good it is, but it looks pretty good in terms of the topics we’re talking about right now.
I’m legally required to say that “The Circle” is a bad book at all times and that maybe people shouldn’t read it. But I think that you’re right in one respect, which is that the themes in that book, as poorly conveyed as they are, are themes that definitely apply to the conversations that we’re having now. It’s not like there aren’t ways — through things like Snapchat Spectacles, for example — to start capturing these things in real time. Obviously that’s a far cry from what we were talking about with “The Circle.”
But again, I think you’re right. That movie’s going to hit weirdly for some people. There’s going to be this “oh my goodness” moment when they see it and maybe start to ask questions about the information that they’re giving up and the ways that companies collect that. But I feel like I have this thought all the time, that there’s always this one moment or this one thing where I think people are going to wake up. I thought many years ago it was the big attack on Sony and PlayStation and so forth, where we were talking about data breaches that affected kids who play games, and it still didn’t do anything. We’ll see if maybe this changes things, but I’m just a terrible cynic at heart and who believes in nothing.
KS: I would absolutely agree, because I think people just give up their information. They just do it all day long and don’t seem to ...
LG: Have you seen the number of cameras all over the stoplights in Silicon Valley?
KS: Yeah, it’s astonishing. They just give it up or they don’t care about it or something like that.
LG: Oh, you mean people just browsing.
LG: They just go onto Facebook and share everything.
KS: They just do it, like, “Here, let me give you this information.”
LG: Share everything on Facebook and they’re like, “Why is this pair shoes following me around the internet?”
LG: Well, you’ve been targeted.
KS: Well, shoes, not me. Yeah, anyway.
The new chair of the FCC — we’re going to do another topic — Ajit Pai has also been a vocal opponent of net neutrality rules. Let’s go back first to what net neutrality rules are, if you can explain them in 5,000 words or less, first off. It was a long-time principle that Obama wrote into law in 2015. Why is Pai so against this, and what does it mean for U.S. internet consumers? And most importantly, internet companies which fought very hard, especially Reed Hastings at Netflix, who’s going to be at the Code Conference talking about this. Can you talk a little bit about the background and where it’s going now with this new FCC chairman?
Totally. Net neutrality is like a cockroach. It’s going to survive the nuclear holocaust. It’ll well surpass me. But the idea behind net neutrality is that internet providers need to treat all web traffic equally. Democratic presidents very much have favored net neutrality. Democratic lawmakers rather as well. They truly believe that internet providers need some check-in law that prevents them from slowing down web pages that you visit or blocking access or making it harder to access competing services, whether we’re talking about other companies that offer video streaming or something else entirely.
Again, under the Obama administration, Democratic chairman Tom Wheeler put into place rules that essentially treat internet providers like utilities. It’s not the exact same, but it’s close enough and it really set the rest of the telecom industry aflame. Those companies for yet another time challenged the Obama administration’s rules in court. In this instance, the Obama administration won. But Republicans throughout all of this have opposed it mostly because they just oppose the need for net neutrality regulation in the first place.
Commissioner Pai, he was a commissioner at the time, obviously voted against them. He felt it was a solution without a problem. Now that he’s taken over the commission, he’s made it all but clear he’s not going to keep those rules in place. While we don’t yet have a timeline for how he’s going to scrap them or whether maybe Congress might take the lead role in scrapping them, it’s very clear that the net neutrality rules that are currently on the books are not going to stay on the books for very much longer.
LG: What does that mean? In a nutshell. You mentioned earlier, for example, this idea of internet providers prioritizing maybe their own video over other video providers. What’s a real-life example of what could happen as a result of this?
I actually tend to think a lot of the examples that are out there are wildly hyperbolic. This idea that Comcast would make it impossible for your to watch a video from other companies doesn’t really mesh with the reality of how consumers use the internet in the first place. And it sort of doesn’t lend enough credence to the fact that if you’re a Comcast subscriber who couldn’t get access to some of that video content, for example, that you would probably be totally up in arms. We see what a John Oliver segment does on net neutrality, much less if a company actually did that sort of thing. I don’t think at the end of the day that there are no net neutrality laws on the books whatsoever. I just think that the form they take is significantly different and it gives a lot of credit to telecom companies to start to do different things.
I think one example of this is this idea of zero rating, which not being in totally wonky terms, is this idea that certain types of content wouldn’t count against your monthly data cap. I think there are a lot of folks on the consumer protection side, on the very strong pro net neutrality side, who think this is a complete violation of the open internet. I think there are a lot of companies that think hey, we’re just providing them with cheaper access to video that they may want and maybe it comes from a company that we’re working with but it’s still potentially better for the consumer. It’s cheaper for the consumer.
That’s a really hard example of a net neutrality issue. It’s one that doesn’t really break down along the lines that we’re used to, but I think it’s the sort of thing we’ll see this FCC allow to happen, these things along the margins. But plenty of net neutrality advocates just don’t think that Chairman Pai has as strong a commitment to the open internet as his Democratic predecessors. Again, at the very least, we know he’s going to scrap the rules, but we don’t know what his new ones may or may not look like.
LG: It’s interesting Kara brought up Reed Hastings who is going to speaking at Code Conference in May, because I had the chance to ask him about net neutrality down at Netflix. A couple of weeks ago they were hosting this event for the launch of one of their new series and in the past Hastings had been pretty outspoken, specifically against Comcast. He ran some posts on his Facebook page, sort of lambasting, for lack of a better word, some of the practices of internet service providers. But now Netflix is actually participating in the some of these zero-rating schemes but he says that he’s okay with it now. He said he’s okay with it because, for example, T-Mobile in the U.S. is making that option open to all video providers. He still sees it as neutral.
KS: Yeah, well, we’ll see. We’ll see where it goes.
LG: It’s definitely going to be something that we’ll ask him about when he’s at Code Conference. Tony, you also wrote an article in Recode this week about the seemingly vacant Office of Science and Technology Policy in Washington. What’s going on there?
For many, many years, there’s been this little-known office in the White House that provides whoever’s in the Oval Office advice about science and technology policy. We’re talking about everything from issues involving cancer cures and HIV cures to what to do about privacy and cyber security and some of the stuff that we’re talking about today.
Under President Barack Obama, that office, which we all know as OSTP, had more than 115 staffers devoted to issues like climate change and technology policy and so forth. Under the Trump Administration, that office is down to even less than its bare bones. It’s even less than half staffed. There are not directors of any of these divisions that oversee science and technology policy in the tech office within OSTP. There is literally only one person appointed by Trump who is left.
It’s all important, not just because there aren’t people there but because the Trump administration is making policy without some of these science and tech experts in place. That’s come in the form of the budget, where Trump has proposed to cut billions of dollars in research funding without actually consulting some of the science and technology experts that his predecessors might have. Or, in the case of immigration, where President Trump had proposed multiple times now a ban on immigration from majority Islamist countries. The first one was tossed out. But whereas in a previous administration OSTP would have provided him advice and would have told him what the tech industry thinks when that happened, this time around, as I reported, the Trump administration just didn’t listen to them at all.
We have a hub in the White House that’s supposed to be smart on science and tech stuff but they don’t really seem to have the ability to be smart on science and tech stuff.
KS: Why, why, why?
There is no shortage of reasons. We’d have to have another podcast just to talk about that. But, you know, the Trump administration, Trump generally has a very small inner circle of people that he has gone to for advice, people like Jared Kushner and so forth. While Kushner has some connection to the tech industry, he’s not a tech policy expert. It’s been very difficult for some of the science and tech folks to penetrate that level of the administration.
Separate of that, there are many positions in government that just haven’t been filled, whether we’re talking about the science and tech parts of the White House or some of the policy-making parts of the federal agencies, across the board, well beyond science and tech and to things like health care and transportation, this administration is just very much behind. But I think the thing that folks are most worried about is that the Trump administration doesn’t care as much about science.
KS: At all. I think not doesn’t care as much. It’s like climate change deniers, all kinds of things. It’s not just that.
It’s really clear where Trump stands on something like climate change, but science is more than climate change. It’s more than just environmental issues. We’re also talking about research and health care and things of this sort. While they’re maybe trying to make a point in not reviving some of the jobs Obama had, they certainly in those other jobs haven’t found anybody at all. We find ourselves in a point in which Trump is making lots of policy right now without some of the expertise he might have needed to do it in a way that benefits folks in Silicon Valley.
LG: Is this just a result of being so pro business and so wanting to push things through? You know, bring back the coal mines. Build the pipeline. Approve all kinds of medical devices without stringent policy. I mean, is all of this just wanting to get business back? Where is this coming from?
Some of it is that. Some of it is that they just don’t believe government has a role to play here. Some of it is that Trump just doesn’t feel very strongly about the size of government. He ran for office talking about cutting government positions, so it’s probably not a shock to anybody that he hasn’t filled a whole lot of them.
But separate of that, a lot of these jobs would be beneficial to business. That’s what folks in Silicon Valley tell me, is that when you have people in the White House talk who about research, those research [inaudible 00:21:53] and [inaudible 00:21:54] research agencies who then end up funding startups in other technologies who provide grants and things of the sort. We could spend a third podcast talking about the startups that have come out of DARPA at the Defense Department and so forth. There’s still a business case to be made for some of the science and tech stuff happening at the White House. This is going to come to head really soon as we start talking about infrastructure reform.
KS: Are you kidding? This is so anti business of the future. It’s pro business of the past and anti business of the future, really.
Sure. But kind of the basic stuff like improving internet access. That’s not even a controversial issue sometimes. Again, you don’t have people in the White House who necessarily are specialized in that right now, and the folks that are there are still getting up to speed. We’re talking about trillions of dollars in infrastructure stuff. The tech industry has a lot to gain or lose here. We’ll see if they’re able to fill those positions in due time.
KS: When you look at this administration in general, when it comes to tech savviness and tech policy, I think the answer is zero. We’re less than a hundred days in. What kind of grade would you give them or what kind of impact do you think it has? I think it’s appalling, the lack of interest in real issues that are facing our future, including the Treasury Department, who should know better. This is a very intelligent man talking about that robotics aren’t going to impact the workforce ...
LG: For at least 50 years. It’s impacting everything now.
KS: This is someone who should absolutely know better and probably does.
LG: I think Kara has just answered her own question, Tony. But, anyway.
KS: Yes, but I’d like to know what you think, Tony. I think they’re idiots, but go ahead.
I’m not going anywhere near that word, but Treasury Secretary Mnuchin did say that he thought it was going to take 50 to 100 years for AI to start to have effects on the economy. I think a lot of folks, be it in the labor community or in Silicon Valley, were completely startled by that, not the least because Trump campaigned on this idea that he wanted to save U.S. factories. But one of the biggest things that encroaches on factories is artificial intelligence and robotics. They’ll hit that roadblock at some point, whether it’s now or in a couple of years.
But the question you asked is about how Trump is doing on science and tech, and I think we sort of have to give him an incomplete right now. The reason why is because they’re so behind on appointing people in so many places. This administration was completely not ready for Day One, and that’s just objective fact that we’ll see the people that they put into place. They do have some good smart people there at the White House who were talking about science and tech policy. But as the rubber starts to hit the road on things like infrastructure, we’re really going to get a sense.
That being said, there are things that are happening that are completely pissing off Silicon Valley. The big one today is this big fight with Twitter over access to records relating to an account on there that’s been saying negative stuff about Trump’s immigration policy. We have all these alt agency accounts that popped up after Trump won the presidency. Folks who claim to be inside these federal agencies saying negative things about what’s happening at those agencies. The Department of Homeland Security went after Twitter. They wanted Twitter to reveal the identify of one of these accounts, and Twitter just today sued to stop them from doing that.
KS: Good for Twitter.
That’s the sort of thing where it doesn’t even matter who’s in the White House. It doesn’t matter what your policy is or how smart folks might be in the White House. That’s going to bother the entirety of Silicon Valley when we’re talking about the ability to express one’s self on social media and privacy. It will be interesting to see in the coming days how the rest of the Valley reacts. But it’s not going to help its relationship with the Trump Administration.
KS: Just lastly, before we get to our questions for the audience, you know this is a president who loves Twitter. Do you feel he’s governing via Twitter? At the same time, here’s a guy who’s just as good at it and uses it, has used it for the wire tap thing, everything. Every day, there’s whatever. That’s how he puts out his diktats.
He certainly knows how to command the narrative through Twitter. But even that I think is starting to have diminishing returns. I think reporters and others have woken up to the fact that they’re playing games with how they release things and the sorts of things that the president says. You can sort of see a little bit of that in what happens every time Trump tweets about a company. I think for a while we all thought, if Trump targeted your CEO or targeted your company that your stock was going to tank and the world was going to end. But as we’re looking at these companies and how they’re doing and how they fared in the hours and in the weeks after Trump has said something, the decline isn’t really that big of a deal. They’re all bouncing back. I think in many ways it’s having a diminished effect on the narrative in Washington. But we’ll see. We’ll see how this continues.
KS: The wire tap thing went on for weeks. It’s still going on, the wire tap. Then he attacked Susan Rice. This is where news is coming out from the president.
Sure, but counter to that is that the wire tap news was going to be news anyway. Folks cared about the Russia-Trump link or lack thereof regardless of whether Trump was tweeting about it. The Susan Rice story, if I recall correctly, which originally came out in a Bloomberg piece, that wasn’t the result of Trump’s tweets necessarily. After the fact, he capitalized on it. But Trump wasn’t the one that drove that. He’s kept it headlines, and that’s certainly very important, but I don’t think that he is singlehandedly controlling the narrative. At some point, the buck stops with reporters, which is maybe our fifth podcast idea where we talk about ...
KS: Tony has invaded our show here.
LG: This is actually going to be a five-part ...
KS: A 17-part series starring Tony Romm. Tony, thanks. Stay tuned everyone. In a minute we’re going to answer some of the reader questions about policy changes and how it impacts your internet use. That will be on Episode 71. But first we’re going to take a quick break as Lauren reads a word from our sponsor and my favorite word to say, ka-ching!
LG: Ka-ching! I have an alternate version of the ad today. Today’s show is brought to you by Government Gator. Are you ready to take your administration to the next level? Sorry. I’ll read the real ad now.
KS: Read the real ad that we’re getting paid for, please.
KS: Oh, wow. Ka-ching. That was very heartfelt. That was a heartfelt reading.
LG: That was very heartfelt. I feel strongly about Host Gator. Although it sounds like something that’s going to eat your website. Like an alligator.
KS: That’s the whole point. But it’s not. That’s the word gator. It’s strong.
LG: First question is from Allen ML. He’s @JoseAllenML on Twitter. “Should we expect Apple and Google to natively adopt protections against the new deregulations?” I guess, I was going to say, maybe we should explain. These aren’t necessarily new deregulations. We talked about it in the first half of the show. But, Tony, take it from here.
I was going to say, I’m going to be Answer Gator right now and say that it doesn’t just really apply at all. The FCC’s rules only apply to telecom companies, internet service providers. We weren’t talking about iPhones necessarily. We weren’t talking about Google’s advertising. The answer: Not really any effect at all.
KS: Okay. The next one from F Reid @2lotech: “Is ISP tracking an issue or is it more something they can do? Are VPNs really the answer if you don’t know what they do with the tracking? I think if they can do it, they do it. That’s my feeling on all this stuff. The ability is the problem.
I think you’re exactly right. If they can do it, they’re going to do it. Verizon didn’t seek to buy Yahoo for no reason at all. There was an actual data and advertising play to be had there. Now, AT&T and Comcast, very quickly after the Trump administration signed its measure, said, “Hey, we’re not violating your privacy. We’re not trying to take your web browsing information and sell it necessarily to advertisers” in the way that I think privacy groups had described it. But I think only time will tell. We’ll see what these companies look to do now that the regulatory playing field has been cleared for them to do the things that they maybe want to do and just haven’t talked about.
The second part of that has to do with VPNs. To keep this really short since you guys are going to get into the technical side of this in the next podcast, you shouldn’t only trust a VPN if you have researched the VPN and if the VPN is free, you should ask yourself the question as to whether you and your personal information is the cost of using that VPN. You should really be wary of some of the free ones there. I won’t advise folks to use some VPN over another. Any VPN at all is sort of what makes sense to you. But you should really be careful and read some of the fine print.
LG: Freedom’s not free, right Tony?
KS: Nothing’s free.
LG: Nothing’s free.
KS: No free lunch.
LG: No free lunch.
KS: Is there any more free ones? Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
LG: Is that a Kara Swisher quote?
KS: No! That’s Janis Joplin, for God’s sake.
LG: Oh. All right.
KS: God. God.
LG: Who’s that?
KS: Next question.
LG: I’m just kidding.
KS: Go ahead. Next question.
LG: Good Lord. Although Spotify did serve up a playlist from the ’90s to me today which really made me feel old and I did enjoy it.
This is an email from Ryan McCaully. “With the onset of autonomous and connected vehicles, who owns the data of where cars travel and habits of drivers? Does the recent FCC rule change or impact driver data in any way?”
The short answer to that question is no. The FCC rules have nothing to do with connected cars, with information collected by vehicles. Even if they did have to do with that, those rules are no longer on the books anyhow so do whatever you want if you’re a carmaker. There are rules about that sort of thing, and a company like Google or whatnot has that store of data, but there’s no impact whatsoever. Even if the rules had stayed with what the FCC had done.
KS: All right. Now, Pablo Osinaga, @P_Osinaga: “What would be the impact for other countries? Should we expect the same kind of laws?”
That’s difficult to answer, but I’m going to take a stab at it. The FCC is very unique and the rules that were passed here are also very unique and the way that Congress went about repealing them is super duper unique. I wouldn’t expect other countries to start rolling back privacy rules. In fact, the trend is in the opposite direction. Europe for a very long time has looked to do more regulation of the tech and telecom sector. It’s in the past few years that they’ve tried to update their data protection directive to include more information, to clamp down more on the way that companies are tapping and selling consumer information.
You know, I think if there’s any long-term effect when it comes to the international space, it’s probably going to end up pissing off Europeans, who for a long time didn’t necessarily trust the U.S. and it’s ability to regulate privacy. We’ve seen many versions of this over the years, where the U.S. and Europe clash over how data moves from one continent to another. Then the Europeans kind of make fun of the U.S. for not being good enough when it comes to clamping down on Silicon Valley and taking action when the Valley does really creepy stuff. I think this is just going to serve as an example of that.
KS: Now we’re creepier.
Yeah, a lot of folks are not happy.
KS: Yeah, I would imagine.
All right. Next one, Lauren.
LG: Next question is from Eric. He’s @EMCP on Twitter. “Could the fear of ads be misplaced? Could this instead be used to power private security firm efforts to monitor the web en mass?” Then he followed up with an example. “For instance, after listening to the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia, firms claim they need more data. This could be one avenue.”
KS: Oh, great.
Yeah, I’m not really sure what we mean by “firms” here. But I would not go as far as to say that there’s a whole lot to be said about the intelligence community. I guess if a company is collecting data and it collects more data and there are more companies that collect it, there’s always the fear that governments here or elsewhere are going to be able to get that data. But I certainly am not going to touch anything related to Russia.
KS: Yeah, let’s stay away from Russia.
LG: Those shoes that follow you around the web? Those are the least of your concerns.
KS: That’s true. But I think this Russia thing ... I’m going to make you talk about it. It is causing people to wonder. There’s so much manipulation and so much ability to use data. I think the idea behind Cambridge Analytica and all this other stuff is what people have and what kind of information and what they can use to manipulate it and fake news. It’s all related to each other in some way. I don’t want to sound like a crazy conspiracy theorist but they’re all part of the same, you know, uber trend, essentially.
Yeah, I actually think there’s a lot of merit to that. And it’s funny, because in the years that I’ve done this, which is about 2.5 million, a lot of folks separate them into different buckets and I’ve never understood why. They think that political advertising belongs in its own camp of stuff when in fact people in the political space are able to infer a whole lot about you. They’re able to get a whole lot of information about you. As we saw in the course of the 2016 election, they’re probably not really great at securing it. When you mentioned Cambridge Analytica, which is a Republican leading data firm, there are certainly concerns there that they’re able to tap a lot of information and make a lot inferences about you.
It’s just the same when we were talking about Edward Snowden. That was the big thing. Tech companies kept saying, “Why are you spying on us? Why are you going out to collect all this information about our users?” A lot of folks from the security side kept saying, “Why are you collecting all that data in the first place?” Of course we’re going to go after it! I think that there’s certainly something there and all of these things are linked. But in terms of specific Russian threats and Intelligence Committee stuff, I certainly couldn’t answer.
KS: This is all very tasty treats for everybody, for whatever their goals are. Do you know what I mean? All this data washing around is sort of delicious for politics, for consumers, for spies. It’s all good.
LG: Yeah. It’s like a game of Whac-A-Mole. One day you wake up in the news and you say ugh, the ISPs. The next day you wake up and you say ugh, Google and Facebook. The next day it’s spies. The next day it’s some U.S. government hired firm. You never know.
But at some point, consumers have to put their feet down. This is where we find ourselves. It’s like people are really upset about Facebook and Google but want to do nothing about it and want to keep using those services. Okay, fine. What do you expect is going to happen? They don’t seem to react to very much when members of Congress don’t vote for legislations on consumer privacy. In the eight or nine years that I’ve been on this beat, we’ve had multiple comprehensive online privacy bills that have died in congressional committee at the hands of lobbying, and consumers were nowhere to be found.
That’s why I said the things I said about education. It’s like if this is now suddenly the hot ticket issue, if this is something that we are about on a national level, then folks need to decide that matters to them and they need to go out and do something about it on a political level.
KS: Yeah, I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I literally had to listen to someone rant and rant about Uber the other day and then they got in an Uber. I was like, “So there you have it.”
Okay. Last question. Well, it’s true. It happens all the time. Question. This is Neil Chilson — and let me just preface by saying @telecomlawyer so you know his opinion about these things. “Why such an uproar over Congress CRA stopping FCC rules but no uproar over 2015 when FCC stripped existing FTC protections?” This to me is like you distract one problematic situation by pointing to what about that. What about that? Answer it anyway, @telecomlawyer.
Remember, the reason that we are where we are with the FCC and the FTC has to do with net neutrality. In treating telecom providers in what’s called common carriers, the FCC has sort of walled off regulation of those companies from the FTC.
KS: Which is the Federal Trade Commission.
Yeah, which is the Federal Trade Commission, which is not allowed to touch those common carriers. There are actually a whole lot of legal repercussions to what Congress did. There are a lot of folks who really believe that we find ourselves in a place right now where no one really has strong consistent authority to go after a telecom company if they violate your privacy.
But I sort of agree with you. You can’t point to one issue by raising another, as this question maybe does. But I think it also speaks to the problem we have now, which is that — and this is maybe a parting thought — that agencies are very, very fractured in what they do and don’t do. The laws don’t make sense sometimes, especially in the digital age, and there are lots of gaps that sometimes benefit the telecom industry and sometimes don’t benefit consumers. At some point someone’s got to decide how we want to fix that.
KS: Absolutely. Let me ask you one last question before we go. These mergers coming up, the Verizon, AOL and Yahoo and AT&T/Time Warner. It looks like they’re going through, not going through? Just answer super briefly.
Yeah, the short answer is that they seem fine. A lot of folks wanted to write stories that said that Donald Trump on the campaign trail was anti big business. They pointed to his comments specifically criticizing the AT&T deal. It all didn’t sort of feel to be the case. In the course of the folks that Trump has either looked at or nominated for jobs that oversee competition and mergers and acquisitions, those folks fall in the lines of conservatives who generally want government to have hands-off in these deals. It looks right now that the AT&T deal in particular is fine. In fact, the guy that Trump has nominated, Makan Delrahim, has previously said he doesn’t believe that AT&T and Time Warner’s merger poses a major antitrust concern. He said that last year before he was nominated. I think that those deals look, at the moment, to be in a good place.
KS: Hence the populist. Here we are. All right. Thank you, Tony. This has been a great episode. It’s very helpful. We’re going to have you on for 63 more episodes. Thank you for doing this.
I’ve written all of them.
KS: Yeah, so now get back to work immediately. Bring us more things.
KS: Bring me more things to please me.
LG: Yes, Tony, thank you so much for coming on.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.