The repeal of the FCC Internet privacy rules has spurred on many discussions on privacy online and how companies collect and use that information. I have fielded many questions on what this means for consumers and their privacy when going online, using search engines, and social media. Some have wondered how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) differ from search engines and social media in how they collect consumer data.
The difference between how ISPs and social networks or search providers collect and use data comes down to the how easy it is for consumers to switch from one provider to another, the ability to opt out, and the ability to circumvent data collection.
The primary difference is in how easy it is for consumers to switch providers. Search engines are the easiest. Simply navigate to another search engine, such as DuckDuckGo which does not track its users, and issue the same search. Yes, the results may vary, and you may be less satisfied with the results, but the process is simple. It takes very little time, and the impact is not great. However, search providers offer more than just searching. Email, cloud services, stock tracking, shopping and other services may also be tied into your search account, so for consumers to fully move away from the platform, they must also adopt new providers for each of these services.
It is a little more difficult with social networks because not all users are on all social networks and social networks cater to certain types of social sharing. If a user decides they do not like how one social network uses their data, so they decide to leave, they may be unable to communicate with some people who are not on the next social platform of choice, or they may miss out on updates from some of their contacts.
It is clear that it is more difficult for consumers to change their ISP or their social network than it is for them to change their search engine. However, it is not clear whether it is more impactful for consumers to change their ISP than their social network. It may also be more difficult for consumers to switch their search provider if they intend on fully disconnecting from that provider because this involves changing email, shopping, and other services as well.
There is also a difference between ISPs and social or search providers in the ability for users to opt out. Prior to the privacy rules that were recently repealed, ISPs opted in each user but allowed them the ability to opt out. This is something that Facebook and Google do not do. If you want to use Facebook and Google, you will be tracked and your data used.
Circumventing data collection