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Vigliotti: Privacy must be protected online

Originally, Facebook conceded that during the most recent U.S. presidential election, 50 million users had their collected data sold by a third-party app developer to Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm based in England. This comes on top of revelations the same kind of thing occurred during Election 2012, that Facebook was not closely monitoring offending apps, and a further admission that now up to 87 million users have had their data improperly shared.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has issued a public apology, and this week went to testify before members of the Senate and Congress. What has evolved is a situation uncommon in recent American politics: for both conservatives and liberals to agree on an issue, namely that individual privacy must be protected online.

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When we enter the public square, the things we say, do, write, advocate for and create will be observed, considered and responded to by the public. We may be photographed or filmed, we may be commented about in spoken or written word, and we will be remembered in the minds of those who witnessed us sing a song, give a speech or even play a practical joke.

But this is common understanding about appearing in public. When we exit the public square, beyond the reaction we have compelled and the memories we have created, we simply exit the public square and largely resume our privacy. (There are always exceptions.)

Facebook, and other social media, are a kind of sharing platform, similar to the public square but not quite the same. Our activities and interactions on Facebook are generally done with the intent to connect with family and friends. In the past, for example, we e-mailed photos, but now we share albums. We also have the ability to make the things we share public to the entire online community, such as opinions on the weather forecast to last night's dinner recipe; and we have the ability to engage with strangers for any reason, from politics to the best places to take a vacation.

Our freely choosing to do these things is just that: an act of choice. We recognize that our venturing into an online public platform means that the public will encounter us. As in the public square, we compel reaction and create memory. But when we exit the social platform, we do not resume our privacy because a kind of data record of our activity has been created.

Data collection in the past consisted of surveys of willing participants by phone, by written questionnaire, by polls and more. People had the right to hang up or refuse to participate.

With Facebook, that is not the case. Our activities are collected and quantitatively configured. The algorithms which consider our actions tailor the ads and content we might see — but these are also useful to those for-profit companies like Cambridge. The overwhelming majority of users would never knowingly agree to such a thing.

After all, we put our phone numbers on do-not-call lists because our numbers are shared around. We do not want the same thing to happen with the information collected about our online activities. But we are told that there is a tacit approval — a terms and conditions of use kind of agreement — that means we consent by our use of the platform.

But it has been repeatedly pointed out that these things are not easily or readily apparent to users.

Zuckerberg, in his hearing, worried that detailed user policies might turn people away — meaning that at present, there can be no fully informed consent. Sen. Lindsey Graham noted the terms of service were already very lengthy, and worried that the average user did not now even fully understand what they were signing up for. Either way, it is a denial of our God-given right to liberty.

Facebook and other social media giants need to truly understand that it is only by consent of the user that their businesses thrive. True, these platforms may be free but social media is dependent upon a social public willing to use them. Even if Facebook was a paid service, it would still require a willing, consenting public.

This is why informed consent matters so much. It is the responsibility of the company to seek informed consent on the part of the user, since the company could not exist without the user. The user, a human being, has a right to say no because the user has a natural right to liberty. Liberty includes the freedom to make choices.

In some apps and features, users must affirmatively choose to share their information. The right to say no means that the setting for data collection across all Facebook should be set to prevention by default. It would be a commonsense corporate response to market demand. If the company fails to respond, then either the #DeleteFacebook movement will thrive, or American lawmakers will move in.

In Europe, right to be forgotten laws take effect next month under General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). During the Senate hearing, Zuckerberg had prepared, written talking points in front of him. One of those talking points read, "Don't say we already do what GDPR requires."

Why not? If Facebook is still trying to conform to GDPR (or already has), wouldn't it make sense for Facebook to voluntarily extend those same protections to Americans and other citizens around the world? Congressman Gene Green pressed Zuckerberg on this, who in turn claimed that the same protections would eventually be extended globally. Time will tell.

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On a final note, Sen. Dick Durbin asked Zuckerberg if he would be OK with sharing the name of the hotel he stayed at the night before. Zuckerberg indicated that he would not. How ironic — or perhaps even hypocritical.

Joe Vigliotti is a writer and a Taneytown city councilman. He can be reached through his website at www.jvigliotti.com.

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