August 14, 2008

AT&T the Web Spy? -- And Their Big Google Lie

Greetings. The battle lines in the broader war over "network neutrality" are becoming ever more clear, and from the standpoint of some ISPs it increasingly appears that the (seemingly coordinated) strategy of the moment is a "But Google is Worse!" defense -- and offense. Truthfulness matters not to these ISPs in this battle, and in a manner reminiscent of the "Obama is a Muslim!" Big Lie, our friends at AT&T have trotted out their own anti-Google lie in an attempt to sway public opinion and the Federal Communications Commission.

The context today is various filings with the FCC associated with their Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) inquiries. Within these documents we learn that AT&T has been enthusiastically exploring the possibility of "opt-in" spying on their subscribers' entire Web surfing data stream.

This revelation yields a plethora of speculative questions. How would such affirmative opt-in permission be obtained (and withdrawn)? What happens to the data collected? Will subscribers be "coerced" into granting permission, perhaps by lower prices and higher bandwidth caps? And is there any reason for us to trust AT&T regarding such matters in the first place, particularly in light of their past history?

AT&T's new Big Lie regarding Google is of particular note:

"Advertising network operators such as Google have evolved beyond merely tracking consumer Web surfing activity on sites for which they have a direct ad-serving relationship. They now have the ability to observe a userís entire Web browsing experience at a granular level."
     -- Dorothy Attwood, AT&T senior vice president for public policy

That second sentence is the kicker -- and is simply untrue. But it's crucial to AT&T's arguments that people believe it to be factual.

Google does collect a great deal of data across their affiliated networks, via IP addresses, cookies (when enabled by users), and presumably URL referers as well. But this only includes sites somehow affiliated with the Google networks, and/or users who have installed various Google tools and enabled associated site reporting features. But it does not otherwise include all visited Web sites. Not by a long shot.

Yet however much dispersed data Google collects in this manner, it still pales in comparison to the 100% of subscribers' unencrypted data directly available to ISPs via DPI, and the immense leverage ISPs have over their customers' total Internet access experience -- with bandwidth caps looming as yet another tool in the ISPs' anti-competitive arsenal.

In fact, ISPs are the only entities with "the ability to observe a userís entire Web browsing experience at a granular level."

And there's another factor too -- more of a gut feeling than a technical analysis. Do I have any issues with some of Google's data collection and related privacy practices? Sure, that's not a secret. But I've been encouraged by Google's continuing evolution in this area, and in particular by their willingness not to simply roll over in the face of outrageous demands for access to customer data.

I realize that all corporations must obey the law, that financial considerations can always put privacy concerns at risk, and that all sorts of other complex factors enter into these situations. But all else being equal, I simply am more willing to trust my data to Google's current management philosophy than I am to the "Yes Sir, whatever you say, Sir!" sensibilities of AT&T when it comes to outsiders wanting to pry into their subscribers' communications.

I used to know quite a few great people at AT&T, especially at Bell Labs in its heyday. Perhaps it's something of a metaphor for where we are now that most of those brilliant individuals have been driven away from AT&T -- and in more than one case they're now at -- Google!

The large ISPs want to remake the Internet in their own image. They see today -- right now -- as the best possible time to take total and complete ownership of Internet users and all associated data. They wish to make sure that the ISPs' positions as gatekeepers to the entire Internet in every respect are firmly entrenched within the oligarchy of the existing U.S. Internet access landscape.

To help ensure outcomes favorable to these goals, it seems that some ISPs are willing to say or do just about anything, be it saddling their subscribers with unreasonable Terms of Service, implementing oppressive operational limitations and bandwidth caps, and in the case of AT&T, issuing distortions and lies about Google as well.

Shame on you, Ma Bell.


Posted by Lauren at August 14, 2008 03:15 PM | Permalink
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