Sir Tim Berners Lee, a passionate advocate of digital privacy and the winner of this year’s Turing prize—the Nobel of computing—will perhaps always be better known as the man who invented the worldwide web.
Sir Tim Berners Lee, a passionate advocate of digital privacy and the winner of this year’s Turing prize—the Nobel of computing—will perhaps always be better known as the man who invented the worldwide web. So, when he terms the recent order US president Donald Trump recently signed, to overturn Federal Communications Commission rules on guaranteeing cyber privacy—introduced in the Obama presidency—“disgusting” and warns that this may leave us more “vulnerable” than before, Americans, and the world at large, better sit up and listen. The changes that Trump has enabled under the Congressional Review Act mean internet-service providers (ISPs) will no longer need to seek a user’s permission to use, share or sell a user’s data on web-loggings and browsing habits. To be sure, most websites, social media, apps and search engines that we use are anyway mining this data to, amongst other things, target ads better, in a user- or device-specific manner. But the key difference here is that these websites/apps mostly require our permission—some may restrict or forbid usage altogether if the required permissions are not granted, but that is a different story—and in some cases, offer the option to disable such targetting.
The best case scenario is, without the protections, there is nothing to American ISPs such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T from tracking and selling users’ data to advertisers—it can be argued that this is beneficial for the user with the latter being handed links to products/services that she might be looking for without having to bother with trawling the net. However, with a user’s data meaning banking data, personal data, health concerns, shopping habits, political views, gambling and gaming habits, if any, and whatnot—based on the websites she visits—the fact that ISPs are free to sell it to anybody they get a request from without even having the need to ever ask her is a minefield. One misstep, and it could all go boom for the user. There is blackmail and fraud in the horizon, as is, perhaps for the worse, surveillance and even attacks. The American elections last year were clouded by the fact that Russian agencies were trying to hack e-mails of key people on both sides of the campaign. Imagine what could happen if a hostile entity could just set up a benevolent-looking front and access important data on important people by simply purchasing it.