Keeping the internet a secure place for work and leisure is tough. If you’ve ever gone to a website (usually an e-commerce site) only to see that same website appear in several ads on other sites over the next day or two, you know about retargeting, even if you don’t know what it means.
In essence, some ad networks (just about all of them) log visits by you into a temporary database. When you show up again on another website that is served by that ad network, it is more profitable for the network to show you an ad for a site you’ve already been on than it is to show you something brand new. The reasoning behind it is that you’ve already shown interest in the previous site, showing it to you again may get you back there, where you might purchase something.
That’s the gist of that kind of system, for the most part, it’s completely harmless and your data is almost always deleted quickly since it isn’t profitable to keep it. What the Senate has just told ISPs it can do is much more invasive than that. This is what you can expect to be sold:
Your Browsing History
The websites you visit say a lot about you. If a company wanted to see everyone who has visited a certain website and advertise towards them, they’d only have to go to the major ISPs to get that information.
Times/Days You Make Online Purchases
Perhaps one of the most important points of data, knowing when you usually make any type of purchase is going to make businesses market towards you especially hard at that time.
An email that you respond to or receive from a trusted source usually contains information you actually care about (as opposed to your spam folder). ISPs can analyze that information then pass it off to other businesses to use in their marketing efforts towards you. Sites like Gmail and Yahoo already have the capability to do this, but an ISP doing it can catch even minor stand-alone email sites, or private website emails.
Perhaps a politician wants to produce specific ad content for a target demographic. It would be as simple as going to an ISP and finding out who is really into snowboarding and lives in their district. Suddenly, you start seeing ads for your 75 year old Senator photoshopped onto a snowboard telling you to vote for him because he is “the cool”.
The main difference between places like Google and Facebook collecting and using this data and your ISPs doing it is that you can choose not to use major internet businesses for the most part. You don’t need to have a Facebook account and you can use other search engines and email platforms besides Google. Of course, it’s a trade off between convenience and usability, but those businesses usually keep that data for themselves since they want to be the ones to profit off of it.
You can’t use the internet without an ISP, something that for the majority of people isn’t really a tenable option. Beyond that, every last interaction on the internet is logged by an ISP, not just visits to websites with ad networks. Finally, they don’t care who gets the information since they are in the business of providing the internet, not necessarily profiting from it. They will sell your information to the highest bidder – as well as all the bidders who weren’t the highest since “hey, money is money”.