Law in the Internet Society

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Reframing Privacy's PR

-- By ZainHaq - 12 Nov 2017

The Challenge & The Opportunity

The idea of regulating data collection has faced a heretofore intractable PR issue. Advocates for privacy have argued that peoples’ data as “theirs” in an effort to get people to care more about holding it close. However, these advocates have lost the argument in a way they may not have seen coming: en masse, people decided that they’d sell this data for the opportunity to access goods and services that they could not otherwise access, and certainly at prices they could not otherwise access. So now privacy efforts, from a public concern standpoint, lay dead in the water. That the Snowden revelations did not scare Americans into reclaiming their data suggests that this tack is lost.

However, two sentences that we’ve used repeatedly in class suggest a new approach. When we say “data is the new petroleum” or that “the net is a new organism we created”, we (in a roundabout way) ascribe biological characteristics to this otherwise binary ecosystem. What if we took this further? What if we used the approaches explaining other forms of public-good regulation to talk about regulating the net? In my view, this approach would powerfully reshape the public conception of the data privacy issue and respark the political viability of data regulation. There are two rationales that seem most pertinent, each of which give an approach that could constitute the backbone of just such a public relations push: the environment and the financial system.

Changing The Environment

Living in a world and a region with “clean” data privacy laws and norms is no more or less attainable than living in a world with “clean” air, water, and soil. We’ve successfully reduced the carcinogens in our air, the pollutants in our water, and cut out the most harmful pesticides to our land. We engaged in this effort for two reasons. First, because we understood that these are resources we share and therefore resources to which we have a public responsibility, enforced through law. So even though we may not farm, we all care about getting food from clean land – and the public consumer should and practically cannot bear the burden of identifying the plot their lunch came from. The second reason we impose environmental regulations is because we understand that, while the public bears the costs, a small group of private actors sow the rewards. This dynamic itself creates two issues: first, these private actors get stuck in a prisoner’s dilemma and look to maximize their reward at any cost to the land, and second, while I said that “the public” would bear the cost, often for reasons of political expediency the bulk of the costs get hitched to the backs of those least equipped to bear the load – the poor, the young, and the elderly.

To sum up, then: we regulate the environment because we understand that it imposes moderate costs on a few parties, primarily well-off, to deliver substantial benefits to the middle class and especially the poor. I think a similar argument exists for regulating data collection and monitoring. Early adopters, ironically, are the least likely to be profiled and targeted by technologies, because they get in before the data sorting and analysis machines run at scale. They are also the most adept at making conscious decisions about their data storage and deletion. On the other hand, late comers to the internet, or people who may never even have had a choice about the internet, are deeply and quickly profiled. That the internet could target ads built for maximum salience to a teenager new to the internet is a phenomenon that should trouble us because the teen never made a conscious decision to use the net and its services. (And the same with the deceased, with those in the developing world, and so on.)

Risk Pricing

As much as this data collection economy presents threats, I strongly believe that the ad-optimization revenue model for the internet is powerful because it empowers people who would otherwise have been walled off from using premium services. The idea that any internet-attached person could use the exact same Twitter platform, with the exact same features, as the most powerful man in the world is unfathomable to any era but ours. I think it’s something we should be proud of; I think it’s something worth protecting. I consider these data aggregators –Twitter, Equifax, or anywhere in between – as in possession of a valuable resource that they can and should use for good, but must also show the utmost care for. That is, they are drilling for petroleum; they’re not just manufacturing anthrax. To me, this sounds a lot like the way we think about banks. We want banks to make risky decisions, because taking calculated bets on people and businesses is how we make the impossible possible. But we also understand that banks, if improperly regulated, become key breakage joints precisely because of how much risk they bear. So we support their risk, on the condition that in non-risky times they follow our rules on how to operate with regards to data security. This is a fair ask, and one that will give tech companies a natural counterparty in pushing the limits and getting into trouble.

The Threat Profile

I think sometimes about all the startups that failed. The now-useless data lists, the activity logs, the profiles. Who is protecting those? Where do they go? Even in a world where the unsuccessful founder doesn’t actively look to sell this info to the highest bidder, there is still a real risk that they could easily lose track of their data and have it exposed to nefarious actors. Promoting this economy, such as it is, may be a wise policy decision – but, in this world of 0 marginal cost, we as a society owe it to ourselves and our children to make sure the costs are not merely shifted to a party that never had the opportunity to choose. Winning the PR battles by appealing to the successful efforts of the past is an important first step.

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Revision 1r1 - 12 Nov 2017 - 18:09:48 - ZainHaq
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