Jared Whitley has a piece titled "Facebook
Is Not the Bad Guy" which The
Weekly Standard ran on July 30. The piece advertises itself, right at the
top, as a "3 min read."
Thankfully, it wasn't any longer. Because, say, if it were a
"6 minute read," it might have been twice as flawed as it already is.
The premise of the piece is that, when it comes to data
privacy and security concerns, the focus on Facebook, and presumably Google,
Amazon, and other web giants, is misplaced. Mr. Whitley suggests "the
media have been quite gleeful in their cheering of Facebook's recent bad
news." Then, he claims "we're picking on the wrong bad guys."
According to Mr. Whitley: "Telecom companies – AT&T, Verizon, Comcast
– have access to more of our data and treat it with nowhere near the scruples
that Silicon Valley does."
Even a cursory read of Mr. Whitley's piece will demonstrate
he produces no evidence to support the claim that the "telecom
companies" [he means: Internet service providers or ISPs] lack the "scruples"
of Facebook, Google, and the other web giants. Mr. Whitley tosses out
character-bashing bombs based on nothing more than his assertion "that
they're eager to get into the digital advertising space that Google and
The reality, whether Mr. Whitley wants to admit it or not,
is that Facebook has been in the news because its conduct and practices
regarding privacy and data security have been problematic, even if not
necessarily unlawful. Facebook's senior executives, including Mark Zuckerberg
and Sheryl Sandberg, have acknowledged the company's privacy and data security
shortcomings surrounding the Cambridge Analytica matters and other incidents.
My purpose here is not to pile on to Facebook to build a
case that it is a "bad guy" – to use Mr. Whitley's terminology. Or to
assert that a case has been made for heavy-handed government intervention of
Facebook or Google. Rather my purpose is to show that if Mr. Whitley, or anyone
else, is concerned about online privacy, it's unwise to ignore the web giants
because, to paraphrase Willie Sutton, that's where the market power – and hence
money – is.
It may be true, as Mr. Whitley claims, that the Internet
service providers like Comcast and Verizon are eager to get into the digital
advertising space. Sure enough. But it is also true, as he concedes, that in
this space "Google and Facebook dominate."
In a February 2016 paper, “Online
Privacy and ISPs: ISP Access to Consumer Data is Limited and Often Less than
Access by Others,” Peter Swire and his colleagues stated that 70% of
Internet service provider traffic would be encrypted by the end of 2016. Under
that scenario, ISPs, at best, only have access to 30% of consumer data. Encryption
keeps getting ever more prevalent so, in 2018, ISPs likely have access to even
less consumer data. In other words, the Googles and Facebooks of the world, not
the ISPs, have far greater access to consumers’ personal information than ISPs.
In the face of this reality regarding market power dominance
in the digital advertising space, I'm baffled as to why Mr. Whitley felt the
need to portray Internet service providers as the "bad guys" in order
to defend Facebook, Google, Amazon, or other web companies. In a two-sided market, ISPs connect consumers to
Internet access and web companies like Facebook to deliver content. Both sides have
an incentive to collect consumer data to deliver targeted advertising and to
respond to evolving consumer demand with innovative, pro-consumer offerings. Done
right, this enhances overall consumer welfare.
What we don't want to do (per
Mr. Whitley) is to engage in unfounded sweeping generalizations. Instead, we
want to have a regulatory regime that emphasizes consumer disclosure and
consumer choice. And we want to target bad actors – "bad guys" if you
will – for appropriate sanctions if they are found, after proper procedure, to
have committed unfair or deceptive practices or other abuses.
And we want to make even a
"3 min read," or perhaps especially a "3 min read,"
accurate, not rife with unfounded accusations.