The videos and the MIT Review article have made me revisit my position on Internet and privacy. In general, I belong to those people who do not attach large importance to their privacy and anonymity as they think they cannot be of interest to big corporations or hackers. Whenever I could get access to great free services in exchange for my email, I provided it without thinking twice. Also, I have supposed that we, as users, often benefit from our information being tracked because it saves the time that we would spend on filling purchasing forms when buying something from our favorite online store.
However, now I have come to realize that this “privacy bargain”, as Cory Doctorow names it, puts us at a huge disadvantage. Internet corporations act often act in a fraudulent manner, tracking our information and selling it to third parties without even asking our permission. There is virtually no opportunity for users to browse Internet without being tracked because, when we disable cookies, we will simply lose access to most of the sites we need. It is particularly exasperating that companies reserve the right to change their privacy policies whenever they want so users are absolutely unprotected from the violation of their rights, even if they read those impenetrable Terms and Conditions carefully. Recent scandals involving Facebook reveal that social networks also profit from our data without our awareness about it. I used to think that it is relatively easy to keep one’s privacy in social networks by using privacy preferences and disclosing only minimal information. In reality, though, it is very difficult because Facebook has introduced default settings for privacy issues. Moreover, it is designed in a way to urge users to disclose ever more personal information with psychological reinforcement. While being extremely beneficial for us, cloud technologies also raise important privacy concerns because we can never really know how cloud services manage our potentially sensitive information.
There can be no doubt that large Internet companies violate our privacy in many different ways. And the most terrible thing about it is that no effective legal mechanisms are in place to protect the users from constant tracking. However, I have maintained my opinion that people should have no illusions about the opportunity of absolute anonymity and privacy on the Internet. We should remember that we are tracked by government and corporations not only online, but also in the physical world, even when we make purchases in a store. Therefore, we have to reconcile with this fact to a certain extent.
The government should play the most important role in ensuring online safety for users because it is the only way to protect their imminent right to privacy. The first and foremost step that would be necessary to address this issue is to clearly define the right itself because it is very ambiguous in the current US legislation. It is absolutely necessary to stipulate to which extent online companies can use our personal information and to create effective compliance mechanisms. Regular auditing of online companies is the primary measure that would check their compliance with the new regulations. In case of revealed violation, severe penalties should be imposed on offender companies, including fines and arrest. Moreover, the government should take steps to oblige Internet corporations to provide a clear and understandable description of their tracking activities, written in large font size and located in a noticeable place on the website. In addition, the companies should be prohibited to change their privacy policies anytime without letting their customers know about it. In general, the government can use many levers to enhance transparency in the Internet, so that the customers should not be coerced to disclose their personal information, but should rather decide whether they want to do it or not. This would additionally instigate innovation and competition between online companies as they will compete for the trust of their customers by raising the quality of their services.