Internet privacy should be a basic human right. Unfortunately there is a lot of debate surrounding how much privacy people should have on the internet. Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, people are aware that companies like Facebook and Google are sucking up user-data and selling it to third-parties. Right now there is a battle between the large tech companies and privacy advocates as to what needs to be done about privacy and related laws.
- Is Internet Privacy a Right?
- Less Privacy Means More Political Influence
- More Privacy For You Means More Privacy for Everyone
- Privacy Matters Everywhere, It’s Just Harder to Achieve Online
- Who Oversees Internet Privacy?
- Current Internet Privacy Laws are Failing
- Trust: Platforms are Failing
- Why Is Internet Privacy an Issue?
Is Internet Privacy A Right?
In the United States, there are laws that protect an individual’s right to privacy. However, where things get blurry is when those laws are applied to people on the internet. There are a few big questions that we need to answer before these laws work for internet users.
- Is there a reasonable expectation of privacy on the internet?
- Is internet use a public or private activity?
Reasonable Expectation of Privacy On The Internet
The answer as to whether there is a reasonable expectation of privacy online is: it depends. Courts have ruled that Facebook posts can’t be considered private because even if you’ve made your profile visible to friends only, the post is still visible to hundreds of people. Email communication, though, could be considered private because there is a clearly defined sender and recipient.
Because privacy issues have made their way into news headlines, more and more websites are moving their privacy practices front and center for their visitors to acknowledge. While this move seems like a good thing for internet users, it’s actually deceptive.
The problem with many internet tools that promise “privacy” is that they can only protect a portion of your internet activity. A VPN may keep your IP address private, but thinking that it keeps you totally anonymous could be a dangerous mistake.
Internet Use: Public or Private?
It’s difficult to determine whether going online is considered being in the public eye. Some activities, like live streaming your activity on an Instagram account using your real name, seem very public in nature. Others, like sending encrypted messages between you and one other person without using your real name, could be considered very private.
Another hurdle to get over when regulating internet privacy is the huge number of possible scenarios. A court would have a hard time ruling that “all Facebook posts are public” or “any email is private” because there are so many other factors at play. Each user likely has slightly different settings, configurations, or even versions of products. As such, ruling on a case-by-case basis is much easier than applying broad regulations to the internet as a whole.
Less Privacy Means More Political Influence
If political campaigns are now using data from sources like Facebook, it’s our responsibility to protect our data from ever getting in the hands of Facebook.
Advertising is more powerful than ever thanks to the massive tracking operations that tech companies have developed. This means that political messaging, especially around election time, is growing more and more powerful. The advertising that previously would have been targeted based on census data like location, income level and political party affiliation can now be targeted on a view on a specific issue or specific behaviors or interests.
More Privacy For You Means More Privacy for Everyone
Your Data Isn’t Just Used Against You
Unfortunately, the algorithms fed by your data aren’t just used to determine which information you see. For example, Facebook’s news feed is based on an algorithm which determines which content you’re most interested in. Your activity is then applied to other people who Facebook determines to be a “lookalike audience”.
Your data, once it gets into Facebook’s system will be grouped with, and compared to other users to determine which “group” you and your data best align with. Because other people who Facebook has decided behave like you will be influenced by what you do, what you click on etc., keeping your information private can help limit the influence Facebook has on others like you.
Privacy Matters Everywhere, It’s Just Hardest To Achieve Online
Your information is prone to being compromised all the time, not just on the internet. According to Identity Force identity theft happens to about 1 in 15 people. If you want to remain private offline, its a simple process: don’t willingly share your information, use cash instead of credit cards, etc. But to achieve an actually measurable and effective level of privacy online can be a daunting task.
To be private on the internet you have to keep your information away from your ISP, the websites you visit, other users on your network, the internet tools you use, phishing attacks and more. While you may have a good idea of how to keep your information safe from one of these groups, protecting yourself from all of them simultaneously requires a lot of effort even for people who are skilled and knowledgeable when it comes to computers.
Encryption is Essential
The best way to protect anything on the internet is with encryption. It lets you use the internet to send and receive messages and files without exposing the content to unwanted eyes. Encryption works by “scrambling” the data or message you are sending. The recipient will have an encryption key that allows to to unscramble the data to view it in plain-text.
Read More: What is Encryption & How Does It Work?
Who Oversees Internet Privacy?
There are a few different agencies that oversee and monitor internet privacy laws and regulations. We’re going to focus on two of them: the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission.
Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
Federal Communications Commission
The FCC is a resource for consumers when it comes to transmitting communications, whether over the internet or elsewhere. It offers consumer guides on a number of topics surrounding privacy and security. In its doccument “Wireless Connections and Bluetooth Security Tips” the FCC explains ways to “minimize your chances of becoming a victim of data or identity theft”.
Read More: Broadband and Internet Guides – FCC
Current Internet Privacy Laws are Failing
With the exception of California, there is very little state level legislation surrounding internet privacy. Many of the laws that apply to internet privacy were created for other purposes and only loosely apply to the internet at all.
“Privacy involves very important societal and cultural values that really need to be determined by the Congress,” Joseph J. Simons, Chairman of the Federal Trade Commision said in an interview.
It’s a clear sign that internet privacy laws (or just the laws that apply to privacy online) are failing when there is a new story about how a company has failed at protecting its users seemingly every few weeks. If tech companies are given free reign to do whatever they want with people’s information, the concept of privacy will continue to crumble.
Right To Be Forgotten vs. First Amendment
European privacy laws, like GDPR, protect people’s right to be forgotten. This means that if there is something negative about you on the internet, you have the right to have it removed if you’d rather that information remain private. Laws in the United States however prioritize the first amendment and free speech. This means that negative information that you’d like to keep private is allowed to remain public and is protected as free speech.
Free speech and access to information is a key principle in the United States’ democratic government. There is a line that needs to be drawn. Keeping negative information about a non-public figure available online doesn’t achieve much as far as advancing our society. We believe that information about public figures and government officials should be able to remain in the public spotlight, without compromising the privacy of normal people.
Trust: Platforms Are Failing
Facebook. Google. Amazon. These companies all rely on user data to improve their products’ usability and monetization. People are willing to give companies like Facebook and Google access to their private information in exchange for using the service. Facebook users trust Facebook to protect their information. People believe that Facebook and other platforms have a responsibility to keep personal information private.
The truth is that Facebook and many other companies have completely failed at keeping their users’ private information private. While the expectation that people have privacy with social media and other internet companies is diminishing, it still exists for some people. It’s reasonable for people to think that a social media site is made for people to communicate with people on the internet. This is just one functionality, and to the companies making these sites it’s not their main goal. Facebook and Google offer free and useful products as a way to attract users. Their end goal is advertising revenue, not user engagement. The more people they have on their platform, and the more data they have about each one, the more money these companies make.
Why Is Internet Privacy an Issue?
Over 95 percent of people in the United States have access to the internet and go online regularly. If the internet continues to be a vacuum for user data, and the companies that collect this data continue to grow and expand the internet will be less user-friendly than ever. The value of the internet is that it’s a resource for the people that go online, not that it feeds the power and control of the most popular websites.
Protecting people’s privacy keeps the power of the internet decentralized and gives everyone an equal voice. If we don’t push back against the companies belittling our privacy, they will be the ones controlling our internet.