Google, Facebook and Surveillance
Written by: Paul Bernal
We need to understand Internet privacy better
Paul Bernal, the author of Internet Privacy Rights, breaks down the brave new world of the right to privacy in an online age. Google and Facebook have put our Internet privacy concerns front and center—but is there a solution in sight?
When I began the research that led to Internet Privacy Rights: Rights to Protect Autonomy, internet privacy was an obscure subject at best, and incidents concerning it were of interest only to geeks or nerds, hidden in small print in the middle pages of newspapers. Now they regularly make the front page – and the pace at which they appear is accelerating.
In the few short months since Internet Privacy Rights was published, we’ve had a whole slew. The highly contentious Google ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling by the ECJ, requiring Google to remove search results to allow people to prevent old, irrelevant stories from being linked to them. The chilling so-called ‘Facebook Experiment’, where Facebook demonstrated that they could manipulate people’s emotions by tailoring their news feeds. The report by Ofcom showing that the rate of uptake of the much-touted ‘porn’ filters introduced by ISPs after great governmental pressure has been pitifully poor. And most dramatically and depressingly the farrago that was the introduction and immediate passing, after mere hours of debate, of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (‘DRIP’) – the new surveillance law currently under significant challenge – in the last days before the summer parliamentary recess.
Privacy matters – internet privacy in particular.
All of these stories relate directly to the subjects discussed in Internet Privacy Rights – and demonstrate the importance and currency of the issues that the book takes on. Anyone who had read the relevant chapters of the book could have understood these issues far better than those who were caught up in the events – particularly the politicians pushing the ‘porn’-filters and passing DRIP. The right to be forgotten is central to Chapter Seven, where a more balanced, practical alternative, a right to delete personal data, is set out. The way Facebook and others manipulate emotions is a theme throughout the book – as is the issue of consent, a key aspect of the Facebook Experiment. The desire of internet users for autonomy – central to the book – seems to be a prime reason for the rejection of ‘porn’ filters. Surveillance and data retention are also critical issues in the book – the objections to the law and the rejection of the ‘snoopers charter’ in 2012 in Chapter Four and the interplay between data retention, data protection and privacy in Chapter Five. The roles of the big players on the internet – in particular Google and Facebook – is perhaps the most important aspect of all of this, and the one that seems to be given the least scrutiny, something that Internet Privacy Rights suggests must change.
More importantly than any of the individual stories, Internet Privacy Rights attempts to show how all of these things are connected. On the surface they may seem to be very different, but when looked at more deeply – as they are in the book – the common themes of autonomy and privacy can be seen. We need to understand that. Privacy matters – internet privacy in particular. It matters to people, which is one of the reasons it is increasingly considered headline news. What’s more, we generally deal with it very badly, particularly in law, as the farce over the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act has demonstrated most graphically. One of the main reasons for this is our lack of understanding and lack of coherence. We don’t make the links we should and we don’t understand the implications of our actions nearly as well as we should. Internet Privacy Rights is intended to help deal with this lack of understanding and incoherence – I hope it becomes part of a much larger debate, one that needs to happen for all our benefit.