When Congress overturned the Federal Communications Commission’s new privacy regulations last month, online activists decided to falsely claim that internet service providers would now sell individual customers’ personal browsing history, Social Security numbers and health information to advertisers. But this is not true. The rules would not have gone into place for another year, and so by vetoing them, the vote preserved the status quo—where this type of information was not sold anyway. But that didn’t slow down the outrage machine. Whatever your opinion of the broadband privacy rule change (the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation argues the FCC’s privacy rules were misguided because they effectively shut broadband providers out of new data-driven business models that fuel the Internet ecosystem), these activists’ reckless disregard for accuracy is troubling.
Case in point: The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to decrying perceived privacy concerns, declared that the “privacy apocalypse” had arrived, and it falsely accused Verizon of using this rule change to create plans to install spyware on all of its users’ devices. The group claimed that AppFlash, which is software that allows a user to search for content and services across different apps, was “just the latest display of wireless carriers’ stunning willingness to compromise the security and privacy of their customers by preloading unwanted apps on users’ devices.” This story quickly spread over the internet, with virtually no fact checking. Verizon quickly responded, explaining that users must actually choose to use the app for it to gather their information, and that they can easily disable its functionality. EFF recognized its initial assessment was flat wrong, and had to withdraw its original post once the facts came to light.
This episode is just the latest in a recent trend of online activists spreading misinformation and “alternative facts” in technology policy debates, transforming what was once a rational, technocratic process of iterative debate into a volatile political battlefield where sound bites and slogans trump facts and reason. This type of rhetoric is effective because it appeals to emotion and spreads quickly in today’s fast-paced media environment where arguments are made in 140 characters. But while effective, it is equally destructive. Hyperbolic rhetoric and misinformation makes it harder for the public to understand the real issues and harder for Washington to engage in constructive, fact-based policymaking. As a result, policy debates on technical topics have become screaming matches rather than discussions of pragmatic solutions that advance the public interest.
It is time for groups like EFF to stop going in half-cocked and raising false alarms to gin up outrage. If civil society groups want to play a constructive role—and they should—a better approach would be to reach out to companies to verify the facts, and even work with them directly to address concerns before they get rolled out to consumers. This would not only help these organizations better fulfill their missions by preventing problems before they occur, but it would also help companies better serve consumers. If EFF had reached out to Verizon to discuss its concerns before rushing to raise the alarm, perhaps it would not have needed to retract its original statement.
But the media is also complicit in spreading this misinformation. While EFF appears to have no desire to engage in fact-checking, newsrooms should. But here editorial standards appear to be lacking for some organizations. For example, a Gizmodo article covering EFF’s withdrawal of their statement about AppFlash warns Verizon users to check whether they have not “inadvertently opted-in to this program.” Here, Gizmodo is suggesting the company could have surreptitiously enabled this feature on its users’ phones. This is, of course, bogus given the fact that Gizmodo’s own article states the feature was only installed on a single phone—not on all Verizon devices.
It is time for policymakers and members of the media to push back on “alternative facts” in tech policy debates and take a more active role in distilling reality from rhetoric. For example, if the media had correctly fact-checked the false claims about ISPs’ selling Social Security numbers, perhaps there would have been less misplaced outrage by the public.
Instead of simply ignoring misinformation, those in policy and media circles should confront it head on to dispel false claims. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and acting Federal Trade Commission Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen did just that when they penned a piece dispelling some of the wilder misconceptions about Congress’ action to nullify the FCC’s rules. Their compelling piece however, unlike the claims it was trying to debunk, did not make the front page of Reddit.
Alan McQuinn is a research analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the leading U.S. science- and tech-policy think tank.
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