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What’s Left of Privacy Rights

March 4, 2010

Senator Dick Durbin is planning on introducing an internet user’s human rights bill, which would be a major step forward in actually requiring websites and other internet service/content providers to conform to any form of behavior whatsoever.  The hearings he conducted on the issue revealed that websites as omnipresent as Facebook and Google are dragging their feet to stand up for their users’ rights when it might mean a slightly more difficult time dealing with those users’ governments (read: China).

U.S. companies are too often bowing to pressure from other governments to censor Internet content or help track down human rights activists, said Durbin, the subcommittee chairman. Durbin asked several U.S. tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter, McAfee and Apple, to testify at Tuesday’s hearing on global Internet freedom, but they declined, he said.

It’s unsurprising that these companies aren’t rushing to the aid of foreign users of their services when they are trying to continue depriving Americans of their personal liberties as quietly as possible, as I’ve previously pointed out.  Currently, the only U.S. regime regulating how websites treat your personal information is the Federal Trade Commission, which only requires that such companies comply with their own posted Terms of Use that, of course, they are allowed to determine for themselves.  Basically, websites can and will basically do whatever they want with your personal information, as long as they tell you they’re doing it in so many words.  Of course, those “so many words” appear in an interminable and incomprehensible string contained within the terms of an End-User Licensing Agreement that 99% of internet users click right through without even a first glance.  Sometimes, you don’t even need to click an “I agree” button for your personal information to be appropriated to other uses; take Google for example. Their privacy policy includes this choice bit of legal prevarication:

Google only shares personal information with other companies or individuals outside of Google in the following limited circumstances:

We have a good faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of such information is reasonably necessary to (a) satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request, (b) enforce applicable Terms of Service, including investigation of potential violations thereof, (c) detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues, or (d) protect against harm to the rights, property or safety of Google, its users or the public as required or permitted by law.

Each one of those so-called “limited circumstances” is a huge loophole that will allow Google to disclose anything about you to anyone (especially any government investigators) so long as they feel like it’s in their advantage to do so.  Most users rationalize this by saying, “Well, I don’t have anything to hide,” but there are two problems with this rationale.  (1) You’ve already given up the right to decide what to keep private and what you don’t mind disclosing to potentially anyone.  (2) Information about you need not be information about illegal or embarrassing conduct to be manipulated against your interests.

Regardless of whether or not you ever have enough money or power or some position of importance worthy of extortion, it might be useful for a third party to know where you and/or your family like eating on a regular basis (or at a given moment, if you’re tweeting).  Or maybe they want more private information, like your hopes and dreams, as told to the Google search box.  Maybe it would be useful to know when you’ve been paid so that an advertiser can can induce you into buying something frivolous.  Or maybe a military recruiter might want to know when you need to combat a sense of isolation with a feeling of greater purpose.  Or worse, regardless of whether or not you’re in a repressive regime, opponents of certain points of view and free expression might like to know where you do your blogging from (like when the U.S. Military monitors Planned Parenthood and abortion advocacy groups).  The point is that privacy is synonymous with real-life freedom.

Are you aware of what rights and freedoms you’re giving away on a regular basis by merely interacting with the internet?  Would you even like to be?  I’ve long since accepted the answer to the first question, but am still much more afraid of the true answer to the second.

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