The Future of Privacy

privacy

Free markets are the dominant economic forces of capitalist countries and it’s the power of such forces that have shaped the modern world. However, markets can’t and don’t solve every issue, privacy is a clear example.

Companies operating in free markets are only sufficiently incentivised to adopt ethical trading practices, such as respecting privacy, when their customers (or users) arrange in large enough numbers to make their voices heard and demand them. There’s no doubt that this happens over time - it would be disingenuous to deny that progress can be a direct result of market demand. To see this in action one only need look at the current boom in vegan products being adopted by powerful food retailers, such as KFC with Beyond Chicken, or supermarkets pledging to go “plastic free” or use exclusively sustainable packaging. In the domain of internet technology, scandal after scandal has resulted in more granular privacy controls for users, like the option to choose app permissions or to choose smaller friend circles on Facebook. Similarly, concerns over issues like privacy have led to other companies gaining traction by appealing to privacy concerns, for example, offering VPNs (like ExpressVPN), or encrypted email services (like Protonmail).

Nonetheless, there are issues with relying on this market-only, self-regulatory approach. One is the time span. Change happens very slowly when it happens at all, and considerable damage can be done in that time (eg. the Ozone layer, climate change, electoral manipulation).

Furthermore, it often takes a crisis before company practices are forced into the light and public outcry results in change. Additionally, for companies to feel the power of the market, consumers need to have the option to go elsewhere for the service they’re providing. The novel situation we currently find ourselves in with companies such as Facebook, is that they are essentially monopolies, empowered by the network effect to suppress competition, and by huge cash reserves to buy out rivals or put them out of business with unsustainably low pricing. Another unique facet of massive online technology companies is that the consumer of one product - social connectivity and free messaging - is also the resource for another: data. In many ways, this has taken power and leverage away from the user as they aren’t the ones with the buying power - advertisers are. Worse, users sometimes find themselves unable to quit even when they want to, addicted by features designed to keep them coming back: endless notifications, infinite scroll, like buttons and follower counts.

The impact of these factors can’t be underestimated. According to Pew Research Centre, around half of Americans do not trust sites to protect their personal information, and yet social media usage continues to increase. Even after revelations like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, exposes of employees listening to Siri and Alexa recordings and reports of new data breaches every day, many internet users continue their usage as normal.

Another issue with self-regulation, is that there are many examples of company practice throughout history which show companies do not consider the detrimental implications of their operations. This is well-illustrated by Big Tobacco’s decades of covering up unequivocal medical research that smoking is extremely harmful to health or oil companies funding disinformation about anthropogenic climate change. This is unsurprising: in a capitalist economy, companies exist first and foremost to make profit for their private owners and shareholders.

It seems apparent then that the free market will not choose the company that bests protects their privacy interests, rather the company which best offers convenience and ease of use ahead of all other priorities. In light of the above, it would be logical to conclude that greater governmental intervention and lawmaking is necessary to protect the privacy rights of citizens. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of the European Union has been instrumental in increasing the privacy rights of EU citizens. Although it will take further time to gauge its overall impact, it is obvious that companies would not (and did not) voluntarily choose to incorporate such rights into their company policies and operations. This is further evidenced in the fact that privacy rights for US users of Facebook are different than for those residing in the EU.

Nevertheless the positives of government interference in the workings of the online world must be balanced against the potential negatives, particularly given that governments can be as much or even more of a watching overlord than private companies, with arguably more worrying consequences. One may prefer to live in Trump’s America than under the eye of East Germany’s Stasi. As governments continue to demand backdoors be built into personal electronic communications devices to enable state spying, it’s clear that ideal legislation would protect citizens’ privacy from both private entities and state governments. At present – trust neither.

Samuel Cornell
Samuel Cornell
Researcher and writer

I start to think, and then I sink into the paper, like I was ink