Clearly our computers and phones don’t speak (well, unless you count Siri, Cortana, and the like) but they do say an awful lot about us when we don’t even realize it. Have you ever gone through your browser history and deleted it because you didn’t want anyone to know what you were looking for? I have and I would be willing to bet you are in the same boat. I’m not saying anything immoral or criminal is going on but we don’t want others to accidentally see that we search for baby-making tips or a questionable rash when and if they borrow any of our devices.
The truth is, no matter how many times we delete our history, we have left digital footprints that we can’t erase. Cable and internet providers track what we do, even if the websites are encrypted. Granted, they see less when it’s encrypted, but it leaves a faint print anyway. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s helpful for law enforcement and service companies learn more about us which can, over time, help them tailor programming and services to our needs and likes. This can even help discover when someone has hacked into your service! A couple of months ago, my mother-in-law received a warning phone call from her internet provider that someone had illegally downloaded Dolly Parton’s song, 9 to 5. The irony of someone stealing a song about working your butt off is not lost on me. The important part was that she was able to explain that not only does she not have a desktop computer (and especially not the one with the IP address they had recorded) but this let her, and the company, know that she needed to change her passwords because someone was stealing the service she was paying for. Being a law-abiding citizen, this concerned my mother-in-law as to whether or not she would get in further trouble but I am happy to report that she, and Dolly Parton, have not been violated on her internet connection since!
But wait though… if the internet company can see all of that, is it a violation of my mother-in-law’s rights? We are in the information/digital/media/internet age, after all. Most of us are pretty aware that our internet use can be tracked, if for no other reason than you can’t even look for a warehouse-sized container of toilet paper on Amazon without suddenly seeing rolls of white, bears wiping their butts, and women knitting TP all over your screen. We can’t really call our internet use “intellectual property” although I tried REALLY hard to rationalize it so we could say it was protected by law. It could be argued that internet service providers (ISPs) have a right to see how their service is being used. If you loaned something to a neighbor, you would want to know where they were going with it and when they will give it back. The same is true for these companies.
That being said, is it okay for companies to sell the information of our hard internet-surfing work? It is a by-product of our own time and can say a lot about us; everything from political opinions to financial information can be gathered. The House and Senate have passed a bill that will revoke a rule passed in the last few months of the Obama administrations which prohibits service providers from selling the information they collect from you. This does NOT apply to Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Bing, etc. Let’s acknowledge that if they can sell our information, it is unfair to keep the service providers from doing it. The rule which will no longer be in effect wasn’t even in effect yet, so I suppose you could say we haven’t gained or lost anything.
I get that we don’t want our information to be used for monetary gain or criminal purposes. ID theft seems just as inevitable as death and taxes these days and we don’t want to make that easier either. Nevertheless, we need to seriously consider how much we are willing to fight for this one small area of information, when much more personal information is being bought and sold. I am much more concerned about my medical information being sold than I am about my internet traffic between Facebook and Congress.gov. (Seriously, my browsing history is uber boring.) When sold, all of this personal data is separated from your personal identifying information. I have had my medical and pay information compromised via government-controlled systems several times since becoming an adult but never have I been notified that any information that had been sold could be tracked back to me and used to steal my identity.
If the concern is that money is being made from our online searching, it might be more profitable to turn that frustration into a movement to reduce the insane prices we pay for these services. I don’t think there is a such thing as a manure farm… but it sure happens a lot and it gets sold too. The manure is just a by-product, but it commands a price and I’m pretty sure farmers who like to sell it are going to be fairly angry if you come and take it. If you are an internet farmer… demand that when they sell info on the crap we search, a reverse fee be paid back to us! It will certainly help offset the fees on the bill that make no sense.