What's the Big Idea?
If you’ve ever shopped, socialized, or signed up for anything online, there’s a chance that information you offered up willingly, in a seemingly private context, is actually being shared or sold without your consent. As the first fully networked generation, we have the privilege of being connected 24/7. But we also have the responsibility to ensure that our data is being handled fairly and scrupulously by governments, private companies, and internet service providers like Facebook and Google.
According to Rebecca MacKinnon, cofounder (with Ethan Zuckerman) of Global Voices, and author of the book, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, concern about cyber crime has lead to "an increasing tendency to pass laws that allow law enforcement and private companies access to our information to follow what we’re doing, to demand that companies hand over information with less and less due process" in the United States and Western Europe.
“Services you depend on are collecting your information," she says. Click on the "Why this Ad?" box in your Gmail account, and you'll see this notice: "This ad is based on emails from your mailbox. Visit Google’s Ads Preferences Manager to learn more, block specific advertisers, or opt out of personalized ads."
Some web companies even track online viewing habits and preferences in order to target their advertising to each user. There's been much media coverage devoted to cookies, which enable any website you visit to send and receive information from your browser without asking. As a New York Times writer put it recently, "The dream of every retailer is to know exactly what its customers are thinking."
But it's not the services or even the barrage of personalized advertising that is a problem. The real danger is the relative lack of oversight and accountability when it comes to the privacy of users on the web, especially given our collective social dependency on it. (Note the inherent passivity of the word "user".) The internet has opened many doors. Now we need to be careful to specify who can and can't walk through them.
MacKinnon is not suggesting that we abandon social networks or return to snail mail. She has a Facebook profile herself and she uses email just like the rest of us. What she is arguing is that it's essential that the public have a voice in shaping the rules that govern our daily lives - despite the ease and novelty of free applications and instant connectivity.
What's the Significance?
"We need to be exercising our power," she says, by becoming active, engaged participants in the global struggle for internet freedom. To do so would require concerted, collective action - much like the petitions that arose in response to SOPA legislation - to insist on government policies and regulations which keep the internet free. You can also defend your rights online as an individual. Here's MacKinnon's advice:
- Be aware. Ask questions about how they share that information with the government and with other companies. Who can access it, and under what circumstances?
- Pay attention to company/community policies and practices: What are the company’s policies about taking down content or blocking content that you might want to be able to see?
- When you’re deciding what ISP or email service to use -- or how you’re going to use a particular social network -- think about whether that company is making an effort to protect your rights, and be careful about how you use that service so that you don’t expose yourself in ways that you don’t want.