Law in the Internet Society

Overcoming Apathy and Helplessness

-- By VinayPatel - 05 Jan 2020

Online privacy and security are matters of growing public concern, or at least growing public awareness. There have been major recent news stories about government mass surveillance, severe data breaches, and challenges to tech giants who have collected more data than they care to protect. This makes it easier to be suspicious of the government and tech companies and to find audiences to join in suspicion. However, translating that suspicion into action to promote online privacy and security is still difficult. The gap between our feelings of concern and our ability to act comes from the sense that surveillance is a threat both too small and too big, so a shift away from a doom-and-gloom framing of the problem may be more effective.

A Threat Too Small

This generation sees the world as constantly in crisis. Various media regularly inform us of the many ways we are each going to die, and there are existential threats which can take us all down together. In this context, any threat that does not imply our demise is not a priority and does not require our attention, unless or until it becomes a crisis. However, large problems are, at the same time, harder for us to comprehend because its effects are not usually personal. Most people’s day-to-day experiences are not identifiably affected by issues like North Korean proliferation. Big threats command our attention and create anxiety, then leave us with nothing to do about them.

Online privacy is not in that category of threats. Surveillance does not in itself present a threat of personal harm; it has to be paired with an actor using that data for malicious purposes to go from potential threat creating unease to crisis demanding attention. While there is an explicit threat in other countries, most people do not see that in the US, so we ignore the problem. However, the problem is personal enough for us to be able to do something about it. We have the power to limit and diversify our technology use. We can make the switch to free software. Yet, we cannot give the issue enough attention to motivate those changes. Our attention is reserved for the problems we cannot change and expect to destroy us. And if we are going to be destroyed anyway, it is hard to care about who has our data.

A Threat Too Big

If we do start to care and to understand the extent of the privacy problem, it quickly becomes unwieldy. There are global corporations dominating communications infrastructure which they can use to manipulate us with self-promoting propaganda and limit what we see online. There are sophisticated surveillance states unwilling to release the power to control their populations. The majority of people who are not literate in tech have no choice but to trust these actors whom they perceive to be the greatest experts. There are also practical concerns people have about giving up their current technologies and features they offer which people now rely on. There is a lot of work to do.

While we each have the ability to create more privacy and security for ourselves, we can only go so far by making surveillance more difficult for those who would surveil us. There must be a bigger, structural change. Companies have to change their cultures to place an emphasis on freedom rather than control, or they must be supplanted by companies that do. Regulation from governments would probably play a role in that. Breaking up tech companies so that there is less centralized control of the internet sounds potentially useful. However, a government which benefits from the surveillance tools these companies provide has little incentive to crack down on them. There must also be a change within the government to value the privacy and freedom of its citizens and to find better ways to address real threats. Those companies and those governments have the power to make that change, not us. Arguably, this is where massive, direct democratic participation is supposed to come in so that we realize our collective power and work together to solve problems. That does not sound like it is going to happen soon, at least without a lot of work, so instead, the size of the problem has knocked us into submission.

Advertising as a Solution

While fear can be an effective motivator, it has not been successful for action against surveillance because the threat is either too small or too big. However, fear is not the only way to promote behavioral change. People may be more motivated to use free software if the pitch for it focuses on the positive rewards of better software rather than the negative effects of their current software. There must be bigger and better marketing and advertising for free software products (without using unethical behavior collection practices). People are likely to adopt new technology if someone they trust shows them it is better than what they are currently using. However, despite being inundated with ads my whole life, I had never heard of the free software programs discussed in class before this semester, and without seeing people I know use them, I still have little idea how they work. Among those without the benefit of this course, there is probably even greater ignorance of free software. Advertising which focuses on the higher quality of free software should be able to convince more people to try it. Describing the problem of surveillance may play a role in demonstrating the privacy benefits of free software, but the product should be at the center of the pitch, not the threat. When free software is always tied to the surveillance threat, it also becomes tied to the feelings of apathy and powerlessness that the threat creates. A positive advertising strategy for free software may be a solution.


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r5 - 07 Jan 2020 - 00:15:06 - VinayPatel
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