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On September 26th, U.S. Senator John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, summoned a hearing titled ‘Examining Safeguards for Consumer Data Privacy’. Executives from AT&T, Amazon, Google, Twitter, Apple, and Charter Communications provided their testimonies to the Committee.

The hearing took place to:

  • examine privacy policies of top technology and communications firms,
  • review the current state of consumer data privacy, and
  • offer members the opportunity to discuss possible approaches to safeguarding privacy more effectively.

John Thune opened the meeting by saying, “This hearing will provide leading technology companies and internet service providers an opportunity to explain their approaches to privacy, how they plan to address new requirements from the European Union and California, and what Congress can do to promote clear privacy expectations without hurting innovation.

There is,however, one major problem with this approach. A hearing on consumer privacy barring any participation from the consumer side is like a meeting to discuss women safety and empowerment without any woman on the board.

Why would the administration do such a thing? They might just be not ready to bring all the sides in one room. They have had a second set of hearings with privacy advocates last week. But will this really bring a change in perspective? And where are we headed?  

AT&T and net neutrality

One of the key issues at hand in this story is net neutrality.. For those that don’t know, this is the principle that Internet service providers should allow access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and shouldn’t be able to favor or block particular products or websites. This basically means a democratic internet.

The recent law ending net neutrality across the majority of U.S. states was arguably pushed and supported by major ISPs and corporations. This makes the declaration by AT&T stating that they want to uphold user privacy rules seem farcical, like a statement made by a hunter who is about to pounce on its prey and luring them with fake consolations. As one of the leading telecom companies, AT&T has a significant stake in the online advertising and direct TV industry. The more they can track you online and record your habits, the better they can push ads and continue to milk user data without them being informed.

That was their goal when they manipulated the modest FCC user data privacy guidelines last year for broadband providers before they could even take effect. Those rules largely just mandated that ISPs be transparent about what data is collected and who it’s being sold to, while requiring opt in consent for particularly sensitive consumer data like your financial background.

When the same company rallies for user data privacy rules and tries to burden the social media and search engine giants like Facebook, Google, Microsoft etc, then there’s a definite doubt about their actual intent. The actual reason might just be to weaken the power of major tech companies like Google, facebook and push their own agenda via their broadband network.

Monopoly in any form is not an ideal scenario for users and customers. While Google and Facebook are vying for a monopoly over how users interact online everyday,  AT&T is playing a different game altogether, that of gaining control of the internet itself.

Google, though, has plans of laying their own internet cable under sea – it’s going to be hard for AT&T to compete, as admirable as its ostensible hubris might be. Still, there is a decent chance that it might become a two horse race by the middle of the next decade.

Of course, the ultimate impact of this sort of monopoly remains to be seen. For AT&T, the opportunity is there, even if it looks like a big challenge.

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