Monday, 24 April 2017 09:28

The Internet Isn’t the Wild Wild West Anymore. It’s Westworld.



Hi, Backchannelers. Steven here. For many years, when people described how the internet worked — whether they were talking about shopping, communicating, or starting a business there — they inevitably invoked a single metaphor. The internet, said just about everybody, was a contemporary incarnation of the wild, wild West.
This implied two things. First, the thrilling feeling of possibilities — anything goes, and that means even the most febrile imagination can not envision the opportunities in this virgin turf. The second was a scarier feeling that comes from the lawlessness of a territory too new for rules to be drawn. Anything goes, and that means you have to watch carefully for ripoffs and scams.

Over 20 years into the consumer internet revolution, and we’re now wise to many scams. And like any well-explored frontier, many of the stakes have been claimed, and are now lushly developed. Through a mix of market forces and regulation, we’ve brought civilization to the electronic provinces. There are still risks — watch out for cyber-thieves holding your data hostage through virus incursions! — but we’ve all accepted that the net is a reasonable place to do business, communicate with each other, and even to access crucial services, like heath care.

These days, the biggest threats on the internet seem to come not from small-time rogues, but big-time corporations that have embraced the internet technology, and often a favored position in the marketplace, to lock in and limit what people might do. The Obama administration tried to address this power imbalance, by attempting to level the suddenly tilted playing field. That’s why we got net neutrality, which preserves equal access to the open net for small teams of small means.

This same argument is also behind the logic of a last year’s Obama-era regulation to stop Internet Service Providers from selling user data to the highest bidder, without permission. It made perfect sense — after all, landline phone carriers can’t sell information about your calls. Most of the population has few or no choices to make in choosing an ISP. Yet, ISPs take note of every site you visit, your location, how long you are on the site, who you send email to…just about every aspect of your life. So it makes perfect sense for consumers to expect their private information to remain private, unless they knowingly allow the Comcasts and AT&Ts of the world to sell it off. It’s not surprising that only the big online bullies (and their paid flunkies) raised objections to the Obama regulation to protect this privacy.

Yet last week both the Senate and the House — overwhelmingly with Republican votes — voted to overturn those limits, and to ban the FCC from ever imposing them again. President Trump is expected to sign the legislation, permanently making the internet a place for rapacious data collecting from largely unwitting consumers. (Here’s a list of those who voted against your privacy; bookmark it for 2018!)

Those supporting this awful rollback say it’s about fair play (after all, services like Google and Facebook weren’t subject to the rule) and freedom. But no one is forced to use Google or Facebook, and those companies make their money from advertising. The ISPs often are monopolies in their region — and consumers pay them. Anyway, if Congress wants Google and Verizon to play by the same privacy rules, why not make it so no company can sell private information without permission?

And the freedom the GOP talks about is largely the consumer’s freedom to get fleeced by big corporations.

No, the internet is not so much the wild, wild West anymore. Increasingly, it’s more like Westworld.

And we’re the androids.

Last week, Pam Edstrom died.She was the early spokesperson for a new company called Microsoft, leaving the company in 1984 to co-found the PR company Waggoner-Edstrom, whose key client for many years (indeed, to this day) was that same Microsoft. Pam was instrumental in shaping, for better or worse, a lot of the conventions that are now standard in tech PR. For instance, pre-Wagg-Ed, as it was commonly called, reporters generally spoke to tech execs with no PR folks in the room. Now, even startups (when they can get away with it) follow the Wagg-Ed model of having detailed strategic publicity plans, implemented by hand-picking the right reporters.

I won’t remember Pam for those client-friendly innovations, but for her honesty and her passion — for both her clients and for her belief that tech would be a huge and beneficial benefit for society. Though not averse to spin, the truth mattered to her. If a critical story was fair, she’d defend the reporter, even if Bill Gates himself was furious. (Believe me, I know.)

In the midst of a tense reporter-company standoff, you could crack a joke with Pam. I’m sorry that there will be no more laughs.

This week on Backchannel:

Why Bargain Travel Sites May No Longer Be Bargains: Aggregators like TripAdvisor and Expedia used to offer the lowest prices around. But that’s starting to change, as hotels and airlines attempt to take back the booking power. Doug Garr digs into the knotty world of online travel brokers, and explains why you might be better off booking directly through a hotel’s front desk.

Handcuffing Cities to Telecom Giants: Right now, there are efforts underway in at least 17 states and at the FCC that would essentially privatize public rights of way, all in the name of 5G. One problem with that? 5G doesn’t exist yet. Susan Crawford explains why we should be very skeptical of anything done in its name.

Obama’s Secretary of Defense Won’t Stop Trying to Fix the World: In Washington, D.C., Ash Carter built bridges between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon. With his new gigs in Boston, he hopes to strengthen them. Our Jessi Hempel caught up with Carter to discuss his next steps, and what they mean for Silicon Valley.

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