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Demystifying Online Privacy, Through the Story of the Man Who Took On Silicon Valley

August 20, 2018

By Nicholas Confessore
Aug. 18, 2018

Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times.

I usually think of myself as a politics reporter, the job I’ve had, on and off, for most of my career. But in the last year or so, I’ve had to add another title, one I never thought I’d have: tech reporter.

In the Trump era, those two topics are increasingly hard to separate. In the last year, I’ve written about the booming business of “bots” and fake accounts on Twitter and how Russian agents used fake Facebook pages to sow division and shape the 2016 presidential election. I also worked on a Times investigation, in partnership with The Guardian and The Observer of London, into Cambridge Analytica, the British-American political data firm that improperly exploited the personal Facebook data of tens of millions of American voters. To study political power today, you have to understand technology.

That’s what drew me to the story of Alastair Mactaggart, the central character in this Sunday’s magazine cover story about the war over privacy. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it has become clear that tech companies like Google and Facebook not only collect extraordinary amounts of information about everyone, but sometimes deceive or mislead their own users about what information is being collected and how it is used.
My colleagues and I have reported extensively over the last year on the enormous power wielded by tech companies over politics and commerce and on the ways in which that power can be abused. Our reporting has shed light on how poorly tech companies protect the integrity of their platforms and of the data you hand them for free, with profound consequences.

Yet both Facebook and Google, and the broader tech industry of which they are a part, have escaped any major regulation or seriously punitive government action in the United States. (In Europe, Google was recently hit with a $5 billion fine for antitrust violations.) Even after a cascade of scandals, Washington had done almost nothing. Why?

Mr. Mactaggart, who last year began organizing to pass a California ballot initiative restricting the abuse of personal data, turned out to be an ideal way to answer the question. For one thing, his campaign was happening in real time, and as a political neophyte, he was encountering Silicon Valley’s political machine for the first time, much as most readers would be. Mr. Mactaggart was not an expert on privacy when he started; he was a wealthy real estate developer from Oakland, whose main interaction with people in the tech world was at Bay Area birthday parties and his neighborhood dog run. He more or less fell into a rabbit hole and became a little obsessed. That journey allowed me to turn an arcane and often boring subject into a compelling yarn; his education — as a political campaigner and as a consumer — becomes the reader’s.

That was important for me, too, as a reporter. I often write about complex policy issues, and questions surrounding data collection, advertising and privacy can be challenging to unspool in a compelling, accessible way.

I used to write about campaign finance; that’s a complicated topic, too, and it was easy to lose readers’ attention. But writing about data and privacy is harder. Presidential campaigns lend a certain innate drama to stories about donors and fund-raising. Tech and social media, while in one sense nearer to people’s daily lives, can seem distant and abstract. For those who have no background in programming or data science, the industry they animate can seem impenetrable.
This is no accident. One reason Big Tech faces so little resistance from policymakers is that Silicon Valley’s business seems so daunting. I find that Big Tech’s lobbyists and “thought leaders” — and some journalists — implicitly and sometimes explicitly promote the idea that policymakers are too dumb, slow or unsophisticated to understand how it all works, let alone regulate something like data collection practices. This notion also helps insulate the industry from accountability.

The story of how Mr. Mactaggart forced California lawmakers to pass a landmark consumer privacy law is, in part, a story of the power of this idea — and also of its flimsiness. The law he helped pass is not a panacea, and won’t solve every problem raised by the encroaching powers of Big Tech. Some critics believe the law doesn’t go far enough. (And many in the industry believe it goes way too far.) But the fact of it — the political proof of concept — has already stirred intense debate and pressure to produce even more protections for consumers, not only in other states but in Washington.

That matters not only for consumers, but also for readers. Mr. Mactaggart is a smart guy, and he had time and resources most people don’t. But he’s not an expert on politics or technology. If he can figure it out, so can you.

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April 18, 2017

COEUR d’ALENE — Not in the world of our internet service.

That’s a common response from local providers on a new federal law that killed an online privacy regulation and could allow internet provider giants to sell the web browsing history of their customers to advertisers.

Mike Kennedy, president of Intermax Networks, a Coeur d’Alene-based provider, vowed his company will never sell client data.

“Never, not once and we won’t,” he said. “We are stunned at the change in this law.

“We take our customers’ privacy seriously as all internet service providers should. Unfortunately, the big national companies have carried the day in Washington on this. So, in response, we are making a pledge to our customers that their browsing data is not for sale with Intermax.”

The Federal Communications Commission rule issued in October was designed to give consumers greater control over how internet service providers share information. But critics said the rule would have stifled innovation.

Within the first day of taking its firm stance to not sell client data, Kennedy said Intermax received more than 150 messages of appreciation from its customers.

“I’ve never had such a big response to any client communication before,” he said. “But most people had no real idea what was happening until we communicated our position to them. So this was both educational and a clear statement.”

Other local providers have a similar response to the change.

“With this change, the internet browsing public will lose the power to stop big internet service and telecommunications providers from invading their privacy and profiting from personal information about their lives, families and children without their express consent,” Jake Montgomery, a manager at Intechtel wrote to The Press in a statement.

“Winning the provisions that protected consumers from this exact thing was a hard-fought battle against big corporate interests. It saddens us to see these protections evaporated with nothing more than the stroke of a pen.”

Javier Mendoza, Frontier Communications spokesman, said internet users are encouraged to review their service providers’ privacy policy to ensure it’s something people are comfortable with.

“Although there have been reports that personal data may be available for sale, that is not true at Frontier,” Mendoza told The Press. “Frontier does not track or sell individual customer browsing history. Frontier remains committed to safeguarding our customers’ privacy and to transparency …”

A spokesperson for Spectrum, formerly Time Warner Cable, in Coeur d’Alene, couldn’t be reached for comment on Thursday.

Undoing the FCC regulation leaves people’s online information in a murky area. Some experts say federal law still requires broadband providers to protect customer information, but it doesn’t spell out how or what companies must do. That’s what the FCC rule aimed to do.

Kennedy said ISPs should not be preying on people’s browsing history, infringing on their privacy and selling it for financial gain.

“This bill was passed because big companies spent big money on lobbyists,” he said. “But it’s a drop in the bucket for them compared to what they think they will get by selling user data and their customers’ information.

“Some have argued that there were procedural matters to clear up between the FCC and FTC (Federal Trade Commission) as the reason for doing it. I contend there are plenty of other ways to have accomplished that without repealing the privacy rule.”

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