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It’s not quite 1984, but today’s online search and social media companies are giving George Orwell a run for his money. Online platforms, ranging from social media sites like Facebook to email vehicles like Gmail and even retailers like Target, have created a deluge of privacy concerns for Americans. There’s something inherently unnerving about entering personal information like Social Security numbers and credit card numbers online, but still, we give this information over the web voluntarily to trusted organizations, which then store and (hopefully) protect it. Then, there’s the information we don’t directly provide them, but they collect anyway through their sneaky privacy policies or third-party companies. For example, you can visit your preferred fitness-apparel company’s website and search for a pair of new running shoes. Then, when you sign into your Facebook account later that day, chances are that you’ll see ads for that very same pair of shoes. If you don’t, then you must have the holy grail of Internet browsers. This seems relatively harmless, until you hear about the massive data breaches that have affected giants like Target, Home Depot, and most recently, Sony. All of this is to say, there’s no denying that the Internet has complicated – and arguably diminished – privacy in recent decades. That’s no longer a question. The better questions now are why has this happened, how has this happened, and what is there left to do about it?

The first question is pretty simple to answer. Companies collect information about web users for the purpose of advertising. If they’re not using the information themselves, they’re selling it to companies who can use it. Retailers collect their consumers’ email addresses so they can stuff their inboxes with deals, offers, and promotions. Social media sites track their users’ information to attract advertisers with the audience insights they can provide. Search engines collect search preferences and create hierarchical algorithms to sell ads to the highest bidder. One could argue that we hand over this information voluntarily, but explaining why we give companies this information and what we expect them to do with it is a topic for a different discussion. The explanation here – that companies collect, store, and sell consumer information online for the purpose of advertising – is somewhat simplistic, as I’m not a technology or analytics expert, but it nonetheless hits at the core motivation. In The Goggleization of Everything, Siva Viadhyanathan asserts that above all, Google is an advertising platform, selling paid placements on its search pages and driving companies to navigate its complex system of algorithms for unpaid placements. And it’s not just Google. According to CNN Money, more than 90 percent of Facebook’s revenue, which measures in the billions, comes from ad sales (Hargreaves).

To make this kind of dough, you need lots of data, which leads to the second question: How has online privacy become so degraded? For a space as wide and pervasive as the Internet, there is little regulation to prevent companies (and even government agencies, a la the NSA) from collecting user data. Federally, there’s the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which allows federal agencies to monitor certain information about a citizen’s communications without a warrant (“Electronic”). It’s in desperate need of updating, as it was originally passed in order to regulate wire communications. In the absence of federal legislation, the states have set their own standards, although innovation has been inconsistent, irregular, and burdensome for national and multi-national companies to keep up with. For example, California allows minors to request that their personal information be removed from any webpage. Connecticut and Delaware require employers to give prior notice before monitoring their employees’ email accounts. What’s more, most states do not require companies to have an online privacy policy (“State”).

This lack of across-the-board, firm regulation with respect to individual privacy is a start to explaining how privacy is diminished online. But the scene gets all the more grim when you look at the factors behind this lack of regulation. Viadhyanathan explains that Google is able to successful defend against stricter regulation because its has wide appeal and trust among the public (18). People, businesses, even political campaigns rely on Google for search, email, navigation, and much more, making it an influential voice in the public sphere. (I’d say that you could even make the argument that its media services, like YouTube and e-reader capabilities, make it powerful in the space of opinion, as well.)

So then, what’s to come for Google, Facebook, and the weakening concept of privacy? Here, I’ll defer again to Viadhyanathan, who presents the dichotomy of market failures and public failures. Market failure occurs when free enterprise does not yield an important public good or service. Similarly, public failure occurs when the state fails to supply an important public good or service. Viadhyanathan uses this framework to justify Google’s massive size and scope, saying that the government could not organize the Internet in an accessible way, so Google did it instead (41). In the space of online privacy, there seems to be at least some effort on both parts. The states are beginning to legislate and the companies are subjecting themselves to some degree of self-regulation by maintaining and updating privacy policies on their own. Thus, we don’t see total failure on the part of the state or the market. But what we do see is slow moving progress and growing skepticism of online privacy. Ultimately, this is not to say that technology is bad and online companies are up to no good. Surely, if you ask the companies for a defense, they’d argue that collecting information about their customers helps them understand and serve them better. Still, it is to say that for the Internet to be such a pervasive space in today’s society, there is much that consumers can’t control about their experience and unpredictable effects of this degrading privacy that remain largely unseen.

Sources:

“Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.” Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. U.S. Department of Justice, 30 July 2013. Web. 03 Dec. 2014. <https://it.ojp.gov/default.aspx?area=privacy&page=1285&gt;.

Hargreaves, Steve. “Facebook Profit Soars.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network, 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 03 Dec. 2014. <http://money.cnn.com/2014/01/29/technology/facebook-earnings/&gt;.

“State Laws Related to Internet Privacy.” State Laws Related to Internet Privacy. National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 Jan. 2014. Web. 03 Dec. 2014. <http://www.ncsl.org/research/telecommunications-and-information-technology/state-laws-related-to-internet-privacy.aspx/&gt;.

Viadhyanathan, Siva. The Googleization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 2011.

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