Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Debunking the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Joint Resolution

Look, nothing about the vote to eliminate privacy rules for ISPs is good. All it means is that 265 Republicans in Congress — and, likely, another one who lives in the White House — decided to side with their donors instead of voters.1

Unfortunately, some of the reactions to this decision have been particularly poor — unsurprising, given the marriage of a technical topic and a somewhat esoteric policy. Joy Reid, for instance, recommended that people start deleting their browser history — something which will have no effect on the ability for an ISP to sell ads against subscriber traffic.

Even worse, though, are two campaigns ostensibly crowdfunding for money to buy Congress’ internet traffic history. With over $100,000 in the pot between them, there’s a lot of money going to something that is an effective impossibility.

Nicole Kobie, the Outline:

Even if ISPs could narrow down a specific person’s data, there’s no good reason why they would — if you were Verizon or Comcast, would you hand over data on half of Congress to a crowdfunding campaign? “In addition… an ISP would have to agree to work with someone to sell them data (just like any other business agreement),” noted Brett Woollum, CEO and founder of another smaller ISP, Tekify. “Just because someone wants the data doesn’t mean they have a right to buy it from an ISP. Therefore, I would speculate that the campaign… and others similar to this, wouldn’t likely be very successful.”

Given enough information in advance, there are certainly ways to target advertising in ways both hilarious and creepy. Brian Swichkow targeted Facebook ads at just his roommate, while Andy Baio experimented with hyper-targeting promotional tweets for fun:

But the fun comes with their Keyword Recommendations Tool, which taps the zeitgeist of the Twitter community to recommend “additional keywords we believe could be relevant to your audience.”

These matches can be, oh, a bit quirky. For example, on Twitter, if you enter in “idiot,” it recommends “asshole” and “deals.”

“Losers” suggests “Twilight.”

But there’s no way to get the data that informs these recommendations — in Twitter’s case, a users’ search history, site usage, and what their follower/following network looks like.

One day soon, American ISPs will probably have their own advertising tools, and it will likely be possible to target users with frightening accuracy. But it’s extremely unlikely that an ISP — for all of their faults — will release the raw browsing history for a particular subscriber, or even a group of subscribers, without some kind of pseudonymization or a subpoena.


  1. You have fifteen minutes to stand on a crowded city street and find one person who would like to have advertising sold against their browsing history. Go for it. I’ll wait. ↩︎