From Piracy to Privacy: Four Things You Need to Know

Posted by · January 27, 2012 3:59 pm

Last week, the headlines were saturated with stories about the now-defeated anti-piracy legislation, which at that point was threatening to change the Internet as Americans knew it forever. Thanks to the historic mobilization of an opposition so great that legislators couldn’t help but take notice, we can all rest assured—at least for now—that SOPA, and its menacing sidekick PIPA, are no more.

Nevertheless, despite the celebration that a victory so great as that won on SOPA Blackout Day warrants, the sobering reality is that the defeat of these bills is not the end of all threats to maintaining a free and open Internet. While Chris Dodd and the MPAA continue to threaten lawmakers that have now turned their backs on SOPA and PIPA, other threats to our ability to freely communicate, express ourselves and stimulate creative innovation loom. Furthermore, there is ground to be gained in holding tech companies accountable using this power.

To put this into perspective, consider the following four stories from this week and decide for yourself if there is still more to be done.

Watch What You Tweet

While it might be true that the victory against SOPA and PIPA will keep websites from being unjustly crushed without due process, the same cannot be said about individuals who use Twitter. In a Thursday announcement on the Twitter blog, the popular microblogging site decided that it now has the power to censor tweets on a case-by-case basis.

“Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country—while keeping it available in the rest of the world,” the blog announced.

Even though the site insists that it is yet to utilize its newfound powers, Twitter has made it clear that it is willing to do so if necessary. What exactly constitutes necessity, you ask? The blog goes on to say that it will censor tweets if they are “required” to do so “in a specific country.”

In other words, if the government doesn’t like what you’ve been tweeting and tells Twitter to silence you, Twitter now sees itself as obligated to do so, regardless of the internationally recognized right of every person to express him/herself.

Heads—Google Wins. Tails—Users Lose.

Earlier this week, I wrote an article reacting to the new one-size-fits-all privacy policy that Google is forcing on its users. Effective March 1st, anyone with accounts on multiple Google-owned sites will see information from one account being shared with all the others, whether users like it or not.

In the seemingly well-intentioned name of “treat[ing] you as a single user across all [Google] products” and creating a “simpler, more intuitive Google experience,” the web giant will help itself to user information as it sees fit. With no ability to opt out of these new provisions, users of Google products will be faced with the choice of either having Google collect, combine and use their information—including their location, web activity and “device-specific information”—or completely recreating their web experience from the ground up.

Since Google owns Android, YouTube and a whole host of other products in the absence of which there are few alternatives given Google’s dominance of the Web, this leaves many users with little choice other than to give in to Google’s demands.

Thankfully, however, lawmakers have already begun to push back on the issue. On Thursday, Rep. Edward Markey and seven other U.S. lawmakers announced that they intend to investigate Google’s new policy’s use of consumer data, suggesting that it may violate an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission.  Markey went on to say that he plans to find out whether these changes violate Google’s recent settlement with the FTC.

In a letter to Google CEO Larry Page, the group of lawmakers said, “While Google suggests that the purpose of this shift in policy is to make the consumer experience simpler, we want to make sure it does not make protecting consumer privacy more complicated.”

Given the current degree of scrutiny Google is under, hopefully this pressure will be enough to convince the embattled company to provide a means for users to opt out of its new policy.

Apple’s Production Problem

Even though it isn’t so much connected with privacy as the previous two stories, the current issue facing Apple is no less connected with the power that complements an Internet that allows people cultural, religious and economic background to have a voice. Despite what I referred to as a “New Era of Transparency” beginning to surface over at Apple, CEO Tim Cook still has a long way to go.

A Thursday article in the New York Times published a long, scathing report outlining the harsh conditions that workers endure in overseas factories that supply and manufacture Apple products. The article did not hold back in describing the world of excessive overtime, seven-day workweeks, inhumane living conditions, underage workers, and hazardous work environments that is endured to bring Western consumers their iPads, iPods and iPhones.

Responding to the NYT report, Cook sent out a letter to Apple employees expressing the company’s concern for “every worker” and that he was “outraged” at the report’s accusations that Apple simply “never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost.”

“Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us,” Cook told his employees. “As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. It’s not who we are.”

So long as we have an Internet that allows us the power to express ourselves freely, it is the responsibility of every consumer to ensure that power is used to hold the companies they patronize accountable.

Some Good News From The Nine

Finally, let’s conclude this Friday Four with some good news. In a long-awaited decision on individual privacy this week, the Supreme Court ruled in US v. Jones that police must obtain a warrant before they attach a GPS tracking device to a suspect’s vehicle. The 9-0 decision from the Court indicates that this decision regarding an individual’s right to privacy found implicitly in the Fourth Amendment is not going to slowly decay as new ways to spy become available to law enforcement.

Writing a concurrence to the Court’s decision, Justice Sonya Sotomayor expressed her concern that the majority opinion did not go far enough to protect privacy rights in an increasingly digital age, especially given the reality that many surveillance methods don’t require any kind of “physical intrusion”:

In cases of electronic or other novel modes of surveillance that do not depend upon a physical invasion on property, the majority opinion’s trespassory test may provide little guidance… GPS monitoring generates a precise, comprehensive record of a person’s public movements that reflects a wealth of detail about her familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.

In light of Sotomayor’s concerns, however, the Court’s decision is still a major win in a fight to preserve privacy rights. As the physical trail that information gathering and sharing once left begins to disappear, building upon this pivotal decision will be crucial.

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