Crypto browser Brave’s Chief Policy & Industry Relations Officer Johnny Ryan testified Tuesday at the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in favor of restricting advertiser’s access to user’s personal data. The hearing on “Understanding the Digital Advertising Ecosystem and the Impact of Data Privacy and Competition Policy” was a big step forward to helping the older folks who make our internet laws understand the impact they have on the future.
The committee aimed at diagnosing problems with internet advertising and prescribed existing solutions. They argued that users should be able to “softly break up and un-break up with” tech companies that harvest their personal information.
Dr. Ryan told the Senate Committee that current laws allow advertisers to keep a profile on you without your consent. “[I]t can include your inferred sexual orientation, political views, whether you are Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, etc., whether you have AIDS, erectile disfunction, or bi-polar disorder.” If you’ve ever clicked on one of those gross, spammy boxes at the bottom of a WaPo article, the algorithm will remember you as the guy who wanted to see what vegetables do to your digestion.
But what could the tech industry and government regulators do about it?
This is one of the few times that the Senate has evaluated a crypto-driven solution to a government concern. Dr. Ryan’s Brave browser makes it possible for users to send BAT coins to websites and content creators to fund the work they put up on the internet. It also has an internal opt-in ad revenue system that puts internet users and publishers on a level playing field and shares revenue between them. This leaves users with a discretionary budget that they can allocate however they wish.
Ryan argued that online advertising companies can buy and sell your information without you really knowing it. Platforms like Brave can capture the value of this traffic in a way that privacy advocates and internet creators can agree on.
Many of the senators were sympathetic to privacy concerns. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) made a surprise plea in the beginning of the meeting to have our digital sense of privacy match our personal sense of the word. “We all have an agreed understanding of what personal privacy means. It was enshrined in the constitution 230 years ago. But if we don’t protect our privacy in the digital age, we make the Constitution irrelevant.” Leahy also stated his support for keeping the internet free and open without burdensome regulation.
Ryan suggests adopting a simple approach. “[O]pt-in must be as easy to undo as it was to give in the first place.” This is a key part of data protection. Say you let your kid use your iPhone for a minute and the kid “accepts” that a website can track all of your data. Is that really consent? Ryan suggests that the ease of accepting something like this should be equal to the ease of undoing that.
This frustration is equivalent of installing a new app and letting it send you push notifications. It’s a lot harder to go into your settings, find the app, change its push notifications settings than it is to just accept in the first place.
In our current system, ad-bots know “what you are reading, watching, and listening to. It includes your location, sometimes right up to your exact GPS coordinates. And it includes unique ID codes that are as specific to you as is your social security number, so that all of this data can be tied to you, continually, over time,” Ryan testified. “This allows companies you have never heard of to maintain intimate profiles about you and what makes you tick – and on everyone you have ever known.”
One of the problems here is the implied contract of free websites. Users exchange their data for the free services offered by Facebook, Google and others. Sen. Lindsey Graham asked the group, “Does anybody have a social media site that charges a subscription fee?” he said, offering this as a solution.
Brian O’Kelly from AppNexus said that LinkedIn had premium services.
Graham responded, “Why is it that no one has come up with a Facebook that you pay $10 a month for?” Cruz then suggested that MSNBC and FOX News start their own enterprise social networks.
The panel of technologists patiently explained that starting a premium service from scratch would be moot, since no one wants to pay to use a service that no one else uses. They cited LinkedIn as an example of one that benefits from having a large network of non-paying users to sell premium accounts to others.
The number of websites, logins, and such that we all have now is staggering. But because of the relative limit to the number of devices we have, advertisers can usually find us wherever we are. This creates new questions that previous generations have already tried to answer. Is it housing discrimination if you advertise a property but only to people who have a single skin color? What about job discrimination to target a recruiting ad to Asian people? And what are the implications for assumed data? As in what if the algorithm decides that you are a 48 year old South American woman and doesn’t advertise mortgage refinancing to people who live in your neighborhood?
And what happens when someone else gets ahold of the data that advertisers collect about you? It is not hard to imagine your boss sending you a YouTube video to show at the next big meeting only to have yourself outted to the entire office when the meeting starts with an unskippable ad for a Gay Cruise Vacation. All because the ad software associated with your browser has decided that you’re not only gay, but single.
At the end of the meeting Ryan scored a small victory for presenting crypto-fueled solutions on Capitol Hill. In his final remarks, a quite concerned, Delaware Senator Chris Coons asked, “Is there a way to say, Okay, when I use this site I only want contextual ads? I don’t want behavioral advertising?”
Johnny Ryan from Brave gave a smile that was part doctor and part salesman and replied, “To the best of my knowledge, the only way to do that now is to use a browser called Brave.”