Critical Mass, Slactivism, and Online Privacy

After these 12 weeks of class, we’ve gone over many different topics. We’ve learned about privacy, companies’ responses to users’ concerns, and what would be the morally or ethically correct thing for companies to do with users data. Yet as we’ve realized, the only thing standing between companies and releasing their data to everyone is a vague law instructing the FTC what to do and the company’s own moral standards, resulting in policies of varying degrees. Those companies in the public view  have better policies; those in the business of staying unknown to the public while collecting data might me more liberal with them.

But how do users of the Internet know that their data is being collected? Are we supposed to automatically assume that any page we visit on the web is tracking us? That shouldn’t be a prerequisite for using the Internet.

There definitely is a vocal minority that wants better privacy controls, and we might just be their newest members, but it has not yet been able to achieve the critical mass needs to to actually effect change. So far, the FTC is the only organization with the power and authority to challenge companies on their privacy policies, though they do so under the auspices of “[preventing] deceptive and unfair business practices” and “[enhancing] informed consumer choice.” While it is great that the government does its research before reporting on violations, criticism does center on the delayed response the FTC often has on matters of privacy, and how decentralized the different privacy policies are.

I feel like therein lies a disconnect between the agency and the day-to-day business of normal Americans. Most people don’t want to read a lengthy report criticizing something and issuing recommendations; they would rather to have things, as Steve Jobs put it, “just work.” As such, it’s especially nice knowing that agreements between the FTC and Facebook and Google have established certain measures of privacy, but what about the other online ad companies? Not much happening there.

Even though most users of social networking sites do indeed care about their privacy, they aren’t willing to do to much to ensure that they have it. Of course, part of the blame can be attributed to the fact that most users don’t know about the myriad of companies tracking them across the web at any time, but I also feel that “slacktivism,” as Lovia mentioned in her presentation, contributes a great deal. If users first instinct to protect their privacy is to copy-paste a unverifiable paragraph of text into their status instead of doing a simple google search to get the actual answers, then can we really say that users care THAT much about their privacy?

It’s great that we advertising corporations that have come together to make opt-out pages such as this, and that’s probably the best we’ll get in terms of ways to limit tracking and privacy, but did anybody really hear about that site before it was shown in class? (Also, even though I opted-out of tracking that day in class, 20 new companies appeared on my list, so I don’t think it’s exactly effective). Even though we have the tools to protect our privacy, the average American user is a far cry away from actually using them to limit their tracking. Even the FTC chair, Jon Leibowitz, says, “[Users have only] a vague, inchoate understanding of what Websites are doing with their information.”

So while both the FTC and vocal users do argue about privacy, companies aren’t going to care that much until a critical mass of Americans realize what private organizations are doing with their data. Until the FTC chases after shady companies doing who-knows-what with people’s data or app developers with access to secret information as a whole, instead of individually, users will have to be vigilant about where they leave tracks for companies to pick up. It might be difficult, but is still definitely necessary.

And as we end this freshman seminar, I’ve certainly personally learned how laws and privacy apply to the internet. Sharing information, in this age of digital technology, instagram, and a multitude of other social networks and trackers, will become all the more important in the future, and I’m glad I had the chance to learn from some awesome professors about these issues. The discussions have been great, and I’m also glad to have had great discussions with thoughtful analysis. I’ll definitely apply some of this to my future interactions with social networks!

And finally, lets hope everything works out well, so this doesn’t happen!

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