Why Online Privacy Matters

by David Honig on March 24, 2011

Every time we go online, an array of companies learn something about us. Search engines, for example, sell ads based on search queries and history, which, in the aggregate, paint a fairly accurate picture of who we are (e.g., age, race, and gender), what we do, where we live, and what our interests are. Similarly, companies like Facebook collect granular data about every one of their users – 500+ million in the case of Facebook – also in an effort to sell advertisements and otherwise profit from using their site. Arguably, this is a quid pro quo that every user agrees to when they log on to the Internet, and especially when they use “free” services, which are mostly supported by ad revenue.

And yet, knowing that all of this personal data is being traded among advertisers and companies like Google is discomforting, especially given how difficult it is to opt out of being tracked online.

Even after several decades, the concept of “online privacy” remains rudimentary. Unlike in the analog world, privacy online should encompass more than just a right to be left alone. It should also entail some degree of ownership over one’s personal data. The extent to which companies ought to be able to track users and aggregate detailed user profiles has been the subject of academic debates and legislative discussions for many years. Most stakeholders now agree that protecting online privacy should be a priority, especially in light of the sensitive nature of some of our uses (e.g., bank transactions). But there has been little in the way of consensus regarding how to actually improve personal privacy on the Internet.

Recently, federal policymakers have grappled with the idea of adopting legislation to protect online privacy by, among other things, adopting a “do not track” list and implementing a user bill of rights. These are noble efforts, but, as always, the devil is in the details. Understandably, the mechanics of crafting policies that seek to govern any aspect of the Internet are complex in such a fluid and dynamic ecosystem.

A major initiative being pursued by the Obama administration is a privacy bill of rights for Internet users. According to Larry Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, a bill of rights is necessary to “provide baseline consumer data privacy protections.” These standards should be “broad and flexible enough to allow consumer privacy protection and business practices to adapt as new technologies and services emerge.” Ultimately, a bill of rights is being sought in order to guarantee consumers, service providers, and online companies of a minimum level of user privacy.

Notice is important in this context because providing users with information about what they are entitled to online regarding privacy could go a long way toward addressing the fears of those who have elected not to adopt broadband because of security concerns. Indeed, a significant barrier to increased broadband adoption among several user groups, including minorities and older adults, is a fear of identity theft or a similar breach of personal privacy. Providing users and non-users with information about legally mandated privacy protections could erase this barrier and spur demand for broadband across these groups.

But legislation is only a first step. Education and training is also essential to ensuring that all users are careful when they are online. Thus, digital literacy training is of paramount importance to ensure that users are able to adequately protect their privacy online. Organizations like One Economy are working to imbue new users in minority and low-income communities with these skills. Numerous other organizations are helping train senior citizens, people with disabilities, and schoolchildren to be safe and aware Internet users.

These efforts must be part of a comprehensive approach to increasing utilization of broadband and the many technologies and services that it enables. Partnerships among service providers and nonprofits like One Economy are vital to training new users and providing them with the skills needed to safely and effectively navigate the Internet. New laws and policies may also be necessary to clarify user rights and to provide certainty to companies competing in the marketplace.

Stakeholders should come together around these issues in order to not only bolster the broadband adoption rate but also to enhance the digital literacy skills of all users. Such an approach could ultimately help to narrow the digital divide.

  • David Honig is MMTC’s President and Executive Director. He co-founded the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) in 1986. MMTC has represented over 70 minority, civil rights and religious national organizations in selected proceedings before the FCC, and it operates the nation’s only full service, minority owned media and telecom brokerage.

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  • John_Q_Public

    This is a great post. It really frames the issue of privacy in a useful and common sense way. Most users don’t realize that they are being tracked online. Hopefully, the debates in DC will enlighten the public about these important issues. Thank you for getting the conversation started.

  • John_Q_Public

    This is a great post. It really frames the issue of privacy in a useful and common sense way. Most users don’t realize that they are being tracked online. Hopefully, the debates in DC will enlighten the public about these important issues. Thank you for getting the conversation started.

  • FussAndHoller

    The key issue for me is opt-in or opt-out — if I am given the “opportunity” to opt out of data-sharing at any Web site, I’m not really given much at all in the way of protection.

    If I have to opt-in to data-sharing — that is, I have to give my consent to a Web site’s gathering any personal information about me — then that provides a measure of privacy protection.

    Anything short of opt-in is just window dressing.

  • StrideRight

    No kidding — people need to learn what corporations are gathering whenever we go online.

    It is shocking.

  • Franklin

    Huge issue — and what FussAndHoller said is right. I should have the protection of no use of my data without my full and active consent.

    Getting Congress to agree to that, though, is going to prove a battle. Corporations don’t like it.

  • S. Witter

    I agree that education and training are key to dealing with the important (and largely avoided) issue of privacy. Legislation is helpful, but it get the job done on its own.

  • DaddyG

    I wonder if the plundering of personal privacy is some kind of revenge of the nerds … payback, now that they have their hands on the controls of the computer networks, for hard times in high school!

  • TheNightfly

    Critical issue — I’m for tough legislation.

  • DianneG

    Digital literacy is essential because a safeguard is no good if people don’t use it and use it properly.

  • It is possible

    I agree. We need both digital literacy and legislation that can protect users right, to ensure privacy online.

  • Guest

    I completely agree. There are definite tradeoffs to privacy and innovation. For example, I like that Amazon collects my information to make fairly accurate recommendations on products I might like to purchase. However, if Amazon (or any company) were to turn around an sell my information to a third party, I would first like to know that they were doing this and second be able to stop them if I wanted to.

    I think most consumers are fairly reasonable and understand that there are benefits to sharing their information, however, without full transparency and the ability to opt-out consumers are never going to trust the companies or websites they come into contact with online.

  • Lulu

    Privacy should be protected online and the best place to enforce this is through legislation. I am in support of new legislation because people’s rights have to be protected.

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