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Privacy on the Internet

by Laura Forlano, May 01, 2001
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A war is being waged on the Internet over the right to keep personal information personal. The fears by the public are real: identity theft, rejection from health insurance or from a prospective employer based on information they should not have, a permanent unease because everything that you write, say or do can and will be stored digitally in databases.

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New Yorkers are concerned about online privacy. More than 77 percent say they want federal laws to restrict what kinds of personal information can be collected about them, according to the Internet Policy Institute.

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Privacy advocates such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, The Center for Democracy and Technology, and Privacy International are concerned about the protection of personal information about consumers online. Specifically of interest are:

  • The collection and possible sale of personal information by Web sites
  • Whether privacy policies are displayed and enforced
  • What personal information will be used for
  • Whether the disclosure of information will be "opt-in," "opt-out," or mandatory
  • Whether the site allows consumers to view and edit their personal information
  • Whether online transactions are secure and therefore do not put personal information at risk.

Privacy has taken the podium at conference after conference in New York this year. Lawyers lobbied for legal solutions, economists evoked economic explanations, advocates approved activist answers and all of them turned to technological experts with the hopes of a technological answer. After all, if technology created this problem, can't it also be part of the solution?

Privacy protection has become a huge market, with a wide variety of products and services exist that promise to safeguard personal information. The technological solutions to privacy protection include encryption, secure transmission, digital signatures, anonymous Web-browsing and e-mailing, independent software agents that protect consumer privacy online, services that provide expiring e-mails, anonymous ownership of bank accounts and other properties, and unique credit card numbers for every purchase. However, there are several important reasons that we may not want technology to fix this problem. One reason is that living in a world where our privacy is protected only by technology, is a world where privacy does not really exist. Using technology to guard our privacy pushes us further into a world of paranoia, secrecy and fear. In addition, such methods are naturally biased towards those with the time, energy and money to devote to protecting their privacy; a very small minority.

This year, there have been almost 50 laws about privacy introduced into Congress. Since policy is so slow to catch up in this area, many of the laws are outdated, ill-informed or premature. Some of them even further erode privacy while proclaiming to protect it. Most are piecemeal, not looking at the problem at the whole, but focusing on one sector or another. It is clear that experts still are not sure whether regulation or self-regulation would be more likely to achieve desired results in this area.

Self-regulation might come in the form of an "opt-in" or "opt-out" standard for protecting personal information online. While businesses might prefer to have consumers opt out if they do not want to receive mailings from third parties, it is unlikely that this standard would satisfy privacy advocates or consumers.

The privacy debate seems to be happening in a vacuum; academics, industry leaders, government officials, activists and the public are rarely brought together to design a solution that addresses the social outcomes that we want to achieve - or even to be sure what the right outcomes are that we should be aiming for.

In the end, the erosion of privacy is just another example of how our science and technology policy-making system has failed us. We have allowed technology to be developed in complete disregard of the societal outcomes that we want to achieve. Since there is a fundamental problem with this system of policy-making, it makes little sense to fight inconsistent, uncoordinated policy with more of the same. Instead, academia and industry, the public sector and the private sector, officials and activists, must all come together to design a solution that reaches across legal, economic, social and technological spheres.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.


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