Photo: Thomas Euler via Flickr
At a Social Media Week panel this week on digital privacy, it became clear how much data companies gather every time people sign in online.Even more concerning, no one seems to have a plan for how to protect that information.
As digital innovation grows and people increasingly rely on the Internet for all parts of daily life, laws surrounding privacy rights are left in disarray, Washington University Law professor Neil Richards told Business Insider.
Nowhere was that concern more apparent than at the panel when two prominent lawyers vehemently disagreed on nearly every point, including whether the government should even protect Internet users’ digital privacy.
Meetup Inc. General Counsel David Pashman and David Straite, a partner at Stewarts Law who represented Facebook users in a privacy class-action lawsuit against the company, fought over what the government should be doing to protect Internet user’s privacy.
Online privacy can be violated in a number of ways.
Advertisers can run analytics on web users’ digital behaviour and can potentially make quite a bit of money just from tracking their virtual activity.
Straite argued Tuesday for government involvement in privacy that mirrored Sen. John McCain’s and Secretary of State John Kerry’s proposed Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights.
The proposed legislation established “rights to protect every American when it comes to the collection, use, and dissemination of their personally identifiable information,” according to Kerry’s website.
“As a fundamental question, it’s broken,” Straite said of the current privacy protection system, which involves companies posting online complicated privacy policies most people can’t understand.
Straite said his ideal solution would include a law that “says there are sacrosanct areas of information that you as a consumer have the right to opt out of and still accept click on the contract.”
But Pashman said government intervention would stifle innovation, arguing the burden to protect privacy was on the user.
“If you don’t know how you’re data is being used, you should assume the worst,” he said. “The obligations that users have is take responsibility for your own privacy. You should be thoughtful about what information you give up.”
According to Pashman, users’ concerns about privacy shouldn’t dictate how a company makes policy, and that the government shouldn’t tell companies how to make their business models.
“The fact that people are uncomfortable with it is not determinative of how companies should be able to do business,” Pashman said. “If people are uncomfortable with something, they can choose not to use the service. That’s the system that I favour. I do not favour a regulatory scheme where the government is telling companies how to develop their business models and what they can do within the confines of what some segment of society now thinks is comfortable.”
While the debate was interesting, and certainly spirited, it created more questions than it answered.
If two experts in the field had no clear answers, what does that mean for the average user?
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