Behind Trump’s weakening of Obama’s Internet privacy protections, a lot of chaos on what privacy means (esp. to insurance companies)

The Washington Post recently documented “how Congress dismantled federal Internet privacy rules” in a piece by Kimbery Kindy on May 30.

The writer notes a collusion between telecommunications provider companies (that is, Internet ISP’s, like Comcast, Verizon and ATT)) and social media and content servicing providers (like Facebook, Google Twitter, Amazon, Apple) in Silicon Valley. Politics emits strange bedfellows (so libertarians say), and the common interest between the backbone technology interests and the content servicing interests on the ad opportunity inherent in relaxing privacy rules is logical, but in contradiction to the general nature of the disagreement between these big industrial sectors over network neutrality. That disparity seems remarkable to me. Particularly remarkable was the donation of money so quickly as Trump took office to roll back Obama’s end-of-term work. I don’t play K-street Monopoly myself.

But there’s not much question that users do benefit from the existence of ads, which pay for all the free user-generated content platforms. The ethical question at the individual level comes down to the old dilemma of spectators vs. actual players. We can’t flourish just as a society of watchers. People need to be willing to see ads, even those selected algorithmically for them, and sometimes people need to be willing to engage them. Both clicks (Adsense) and actual product purchases (Amazon) do help some people make a living by publishing on the Internet.   Freedom implies (somewhat ironically) a need to some new openness to sharing on terms other than one’s own (as in the film “The Circle“).

Where there is a problem, though, can be with security, and, to some extent, online reputation. Users are sometimes reckless on the web. To the extent that users apply privacy settings and they work, that’s not too bad; but often users place gratuitous material online which could attract harm to them and to others connected to them. That has to become a concern for the insurance industry, for example (yesterday).

In fact, there’s a sliding continuum, in most people’s minds, between privacy and reputation. People post legitimate (not porn) interesting stuff because it makes them appear cool, knowledgeable, or desirable in some way for others, or just politically and socially influential. Sometimes you can do this and maintain a certain amount of privacy (wait until you’re back home or near the end of the vacation before posting public images and videos of your good time at P-town or Disney’s new Pandora). I say this noting that some Facebook friends let Facebook post all of their movements on their timeline to friends on geographical maps. (That makes them feel important.)

Employers have been concerned about watching associate (and especially job applicant) personal social media for about a decade now (giving rise to the whole Reputation industry). They have legitimate concerns, for example, about managers inadvertently creating a legally hostile workplace by expressing their views online even in their own personal accounts. That’s especially true now that in the world of Trump, society seems to be getting more polarized into worlds of identity politics. Businesses may not even want some polarizing people as customers (as Richard Spencer found out from Sport and Health recently).

This problem can spill over into insurance, where we know that insurance companies (both health and property) sometimes scan consumer social media accounts or other blog or content posts for possible claims fraud. They could also get a sense of increased consumer loss risk from some social media content (obviously health risks like STD’s, smoking, drugs, and the like, or risky hobbies like skydiving; imagination goes wild on this.)   Here are a couple of discussions about the problem: Huffington, and Insurance Quotes.  This problem can quickly connect itself to social justice and identity issues.

In fact, the end of the Denver TV station video envisions a world where insurance companies don’t want users to post any vacation details in public mode at all. I haven’t heard that said so bluntly before, but since I dug into it, I have to report it. One immediately problem with this idea is that pages (as opposed to friending accounts) are, almost by definition, public. And there are “friends” and there are “pseudo-friends”. Not everyone expects a personal conversation or relationship with each “friend” as “trusted:. The idea seems not very well thought through.

(Posted: Wednesday, May 31, 2017 at 3:45 PM EDT)