Law in the Internet Society

It was not a long time ago when we thought of the internet as a place to remain disguised. Our social media accounts offered ways to mask our identities with weird nicknames.

That would be pseudonymity, and of a weak kind, not anonymity at all.

We could fill the gaps with false information and yet nobody could say anything, because we thought nobody could find out who we were, where we lived, which school we were going to or what was the next thing we would more likely to buy online.

Who is the "we" here?

Today net is the place where anonymity is dead. People who are technically advanced or who care about their privacy and search for ways to maintain it, may still find ways to hide their profiles, preferences, likes an dislikes while browsing in the internet, but the rest is indifferent to the haunting surveillance of the net. Tremendous amounts of data piles up every second and unless we are cautious of our each move and our peers' actions about us in the net, it seems like there is no turning back from opting out.

I don't think this is accurate. Which "people" "work on finding ways"? The ways are simple enough, and well known to technically-skilled people who care about their online privacy. So about whom are we speaking and what "work" do they do?

When the net knows your pregnancy before you do

In 2014, Princeton sociologist, Janet Vertesi run a test to see whether it was possible to hide her pregnancy from the internet. She told every family member not to contact her about it through any technological means. Maybe shutting down her social media accounts would have made it easier, but she wanted to see the possibility to remain anonymous while she was actually online. Despite the warnings, one of her relatives sent her a private Facebook message, assuming it could not be traced down by the data-mining technology. She immediately deleted the message and "unfriended" that relative as she was aware that Facebook could also collect data through private messages.

She made her purchases with cash and also did not buy anything with her credit card online. Instead, she created an alternative mail account, did the shopping with pre-paid gift cards and sent it to a shared locker of Amazon. She even bought prenatal vitamins in cash, so as to make sure that no one could even relate the idea of her getting pregnant sooner or later. However, her efforts to remain anonymous made her look like a criminal. When she wanted to continue shopping with a pre-paid card she was warned by Rite Aid that if the transaction excessed a certain amount, they would report it to the authorities.

Vertesi's ultimate aim in this project is to show that our personal lives are monetized and monitored, yet we often take it for granted. On to that account, in an age of constant surveillance, how is privacy structured? Is it possible to hide from big data or is it possible to fool it? These questions are too broad to answer and concerns a wide range of disciplines, but proposing the idea of living in a digital panopticon where anonymity is disappeared, would be one way to start thinking about them. Given the broad analysis on surveillance regimes by scholars like Foucault and recent findings on "de-anonymization"; I will try to show that opting-out is not possible.

None of this is about "when the net knows your pregnancy before you do." It is about "can you keep marketers from discovering you are pregnant by tradecraft?" This is not necessarily irrelevant to the essay enclosing it, but it is disappointing to see the analysis misdescribed, and it's not clear what the answer was to the question purportedly asked. The actual conclusion reached, which is that people do not mostly understand the problem, is not an advance for us.

Digital Panopticon and Anonymity

Weber's iron cage proposes the idea that in modern times rationalization and bureaucratization create institutions that seek maximum efficiency. Foucault advocates a parallel theory with panopticon that dehumanization is a result of advance forms of technologies and disciplines. Rationalization, for Foucault, is the pursuit of controlling human life with constant surveillance and calculation. Therefore, as rationalization occupies every aspect of human life, technology becomes capable of producing more pervasive means of control.

The panopticon of today is the internet, as it constantly observes behavior, exerts its power over it and commodifies human attention. The net violates the boundaries of private sphere and through conscious or unconscious participation it collects tremendous amounts of data to ensure market efficiency. However, assuring efficacy and privacy simultaneously are at odds with each other. One of them should take over the other if one wants to survive. As in the case of Vertesi, the internet had to find out about her pregnancy, since a pregnant women is worth three times more than an ordinary individual. The reason is, a future mother is highly valuable if she needs to buy diapers, because it will affect her long-term consumption patterns. Vertesi could only hide her secret for 7 months until Target and American Baby Life managed to find out about her situation, but realized that isolation efforts were time consuming and could even be risky.

The Illusion of Privacy

The participant in the net continuously leaves his digital footprints behind and the net makes sure that every photo, mail, video is attributed to its source whether the source wants it or not. Even though users try to mask their information somehow, technologies often find new ways to "de-anonymize" every single data. As the law professor Ohm states; "...the re-identification science makes the claims of privacy an illusion as by mixing and matching several sources of data, it is possible to reach the private...almost all information can be personal when combined with enough numbers of relevant data...". Therefore, the net has conquered our personal sphere and it is not possible to guarantee privacy for its users as merging various data sources can destroy the barriers of privacy.


The internet overall repurposes the understanding of privacy and redistributes it in order to capitalize and modify behaviour for profit. Digital platforms that are connecting us electronically provide several spaces for all sorts of transactions in order to know who says what and where. It is alarming in the sense that it challenges notions of privacy, freedom and trust. We should be aware that anything we do on the net will never cease to exist. The technology of today is worrisome and regulators need to implement more efficient policies that weight harm against benefit and privacy against efficacy.

Perhaps this is actually a conclusion, but it feels more like an introduction to an essay we aren't reading. "X is worrisome and Y needs to do something about it" is a point of departure rather than a place to land.


Why aren't these links in the text, allowing people to check or explore in the context of the sentence they are reading? This is the Web.


Webs Webs

r3 - 16 Feb 2017 - 17:40:56 - MerveKirmaci
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