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It's My Privacy (4)

(Fourth in a series of posts that will form a chapter for a university textbook called Communication in Question, Second Edition which will be released in 2013. The chapter is called "Social Networks and Privacy: Should Government Be More Interventionist in Protecting Personal Privacy?" Please read part one, part two and part three first so that you get the proper context for this post. Part five will follow next week.)

Who should do it, though?

The social network platforms themselves should be responsible for balancing the selling of personal data against the need to protect personal privacy. Marketers, too, may also have to learn that consumer trust, if threatened by over-zealous manipulation of the huge global database that is social networks, can easily be withdrawn. And as consumers and users of social networks, we should all be vigilant – and critical – when companies like Facebook and Google+ push the boundaries of fair use of the information we give them.

Marketers and social platforms have to allow for meaningful consent with respect to the information we let them have in exchange for access to social networks like Facebook and Twitter. We should ask that they build choice and opt in and out privileges with respect to data exposure at every decision step in online transactions, and hold them to account – through online social action (by withdrawal of commerce among other things)  – if they play free and loose with that data, our online friendships and our images. And we should urge them to limit the types of profile information collected and the length of time it is stored.” This is a good starting point for legitimate protection of privacy on social networks.

But government intervening to protect privacy on social networks?  Now that’s a different question.

Let’s start with a basic premise: intervention by government should always make us nervous. Elected officials are motivated as much by political expediency as they are the common good.  And when expediency and pressure are involved it’s the wrong time to make decisions about anything, never mind sensitive issues like privacy protection, freedom of expression, authorization-to-access or piracy prevention. 

There is a legitimate role for governments to play in ensuring that companies behind social networks recognize and act on legislated standards with respect to privacy. Since the Ontario Court of Appeal affirmed in Jones v Tsige (2012) that there is a tort of invasion of privacy in Ontario at least and that “Charter jurisprudence recognizes privacy as a fundamental value in our law and specifically identifies, as worthy of protection, a right to informational privacy that is distinct from personal and territorial privacy.” (6), then it is fair to assume that government and the courts should be providing guidance to corporations about when, how and if there actions step over legal boundaries for protecting privacy. This may pose something of a challenge to consumer sovereignty over its relationship with private business. But it is marginally better than relying solely on the alternative that would see consumer activism – which often comes late and after the damage is done – as the recourse when companies stray.

Certainly arms length government agencies such as the Office of the Privacy Commissioner in Canada can help educate us about our responsibilities for safeguarding our own personal data and the risks of moving more and more of that data online. The OPC has – and should continue to – call out Facebook , Twitter, Google and other digital media corporations when they act in breach of Canada's privacy legislation and Charter jurisprudence on privacy issues.

But let’s add another observation . . . privacy discussions globally have taken on a dramatically new urgency as authoritarian and democratic governments alike attempt to rein in what they see as the digital anarchy occasioned by the anonymity of web sharing (to be continued next week).

Blase About Privacy?

SXSW Interactive 2012