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It's My Privacy (Final Post)

(This is the final post in a series 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, part three and part four first so that you get the proper context.)

(Photo is of author and educator, Howard Rheingold, whose most recent book Net Smart was recently released. It looks at five digital literacies needed today: attention, participation, collaboration, critical consumption of information (or "crap detection"), and network smarts . . . all of which can help us better manage privacy concerns on social networks.)

When it comes to governments and privacy protection on social networks and other web destinations the concern today should be not so much with how governments can help protect our privacy on social networks through legislation and regulation, but how they are threatening individual privacy with legislation that supports – without personal consent or court-backed approval – surveillance by police and security forces.

It is a trope of authoritarian regimes – like those in China – that restriction on use and access to data, and official scrutiny of online sharing and discussion, are necessary to prevent criminals and terrorists from using social networks to organize themselves for evil.

However, now some democracies including the United States and Canada have tabled legislation that threatens Internet privacy under the guise of giving “law enforcement agencies the ability to address organized crime and terrorism activities” or, in the case of the U.S., to prevent piracy of movies and music

The U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act, which was sidelined after widespread and effective online activism (including 24 hour blackouts on Wikipedia and Reddit) in early January 2012 could have forced Internet service providers to block websites suspected of violating copyright or trademark legislation. While the U.S. measures were targeted at Internet piracy, to many they smacked of a government incursion into freedom of expression and unwarranted treading on the privacy of online exchange and sharing.

In Canada, something more meddlesome is being considered. “In a series of legislative moves relating to overhauling the Criminal Code (Bills C-50, C-51, C-52), the Conservative government will require Internet Service Providers to hand over personal information about Canadians to the police without warrant, to retool their networks in ways that enables live monitoring of consumer online activities, and to assist police in the testing of online surveillance capabilities.

Or as the Open Media advocacy group puts it, “The government is trying to push through a set of electronic surveillance laws that will invade your privacy and cost you money. The plan is to force every phone and Internet provider to allow "authorities" to collect the private information of any Canadian, at any time, without a warrant.”

Now this is not the place to argue the philosophy of the ‘private mind’ or the Lockian idea of what of people’s natural rights they are willing to exchange for protection in a society governed by common law. Suffice it to say that Internet users might have as much to fear from overprotective legislation as they do dodgy marketing practices or religious or political zealots, depending on how the legislation in both countries finally looks.

Certainly, the Canadian federal privacy commissioner thinks Canadians have something to be concerned about. In a letter to Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada Jennifer Stoddart seems to have it right:

Read together, the provisions of the lawful access bills from the last session of Parliament (C-50, C-51, and C-52) would have had a significant impact on our privacy rights.  By expanding the legal tools of the state to conduct surveillance and access private information, and by reducing the depth of judicial scrutiny, the previous bills would have allowed government to subject more individuals to surveillance and scrutiny.  In brief, these bills went far beyond simply maintaining investigative capacity or modernizing search powers.  Rather, they added significant new capabilities for investigators to track, and search and seize digital information about individuals.

What is striking about these efforts by governments to wrangle to the ground what they seem to think is Internet ‘mayhem’ is how insensitive they are to what truly troubles ordinary citizens about privacy issues. 

We want to be protected from our own ignorance (no I don’t read those terms of service descriptions either), but not in a way that sets up frighteningly loose protections to freedom or puts unchecked authorities in charge of online surveillance.

We want social network platforms to prevent third-party applications combining our information with other sources of data to steal our identities.

We want to express our affection for a brand without that expression being used to sell us more at least without our express consent.

Most of all, we – or at least certainly I – don’t want governments to confuse shielding private data or sheltering intellectual property with granting law enforcement access to our private information instead.

The answer to the question ‘should government be more interventionist in protecting personal privacy?’ on social networks is an equivocal ‘No’. There is a place for governments and arms length agencies like OPC in leading an open dialogue with business about better protection of personal data online.  There is a job for government and the courts in going after companies that breach their own codes, Charter rights or legal precedent. 

But at the end of the day the larger threat is in government requiring Internet service providers to collect and release to it user data,  and with government providing law enforcement unsupervised access to our personal information even when parts of it are unwittingly surrendered.  This is what we need to be vigilant of, and as digital citizens we need to be willing to fight back both online and off when that threat rears its subtle head.

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