Technology

Sarconi: Social media users are too lenient when it comes to online privacy

Americans can be a funny people. Sometimes, the division between what we care about and what we don’t is paper thin.

Take, for instance, our stance on online privacy: if the government is monitoring us, we throw a fit. If Facebook is collecting our information, well, it seems most of the population either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. Thank God Europe, particularly France, isn’t as lenient with social media companies as we are.

France’s data protection authority, Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés (CNIL), recently ordered Facebook to stop collecting data on non-users who visit public pages on the site in Europe. The move comes in response to the “Safe Harbor” deal the U.S. and EU agreed upon earlier this month.

The formal notice given by CNIL shows the country’s bulldog approach to protecting the information of its citizens. While it’s an encouraging sign that there are finally measures being taken to regulate how websites can collect data and what they can do with it, it’s discouraging that the U.S. didn’t issue it first.

Make no mistake: the new currency of the Internet is information. Our searches, purchases and website histories are all saved on cookies and combined to create an online profile of someone. I have one and so do you.

Often, these digital portraits are sold to advertisers. That’s why if you go to a website on Tuesday looking for clothes, you’ll likely see an ad for a piece of clothing from that site on Facebook on Wednesday. That’s an easy correlation to make, but the unnerving part of online data collection is what they are doing with it that we can’t see.

There’s a real question whether, and how, the U.S. is going to regulate data protection.
Yang Wang, assistant professor in SU's School of Information Studies

At least when it comes to the government, we can say somewhat confidently they are using it to prevent terrorist attacks — yet that still doesn’t comfort people. For some reason, whatever Facebook, Amazon, Google and others are doing is less inflammatory in the public’s eye.

But it’s time to realize companies like Facebook wield more power than most governments.

Mark Zuckerberg is the founder and CEO of a website that has around a billion and a half monthly active users, according to statistics database Statista, and it’s safe to assume that he has access to more information on people than almost most governments on Earth. That’s power.

Facebook does have a “Data Policy” page that attempts to be transparent in what they do with your information. And while they do a fairly good job of telling the user what types of data they are using and how they use it, the average person has probably never even seen this page.

I am not saying I think Facebook should not use our information to sell to advertisers: I understand that media and advertising are interdependent. But France is ordering the site to cease collecting information on people who don’t even have Facebook profiles.

If you sign up for the site, you cede a lot of information. You have made a conscious decision to input data about yourself to join an online community. If you don’t have a profile, however, you have made no such agreement.

Visiting a public page should not give Zuckerberg’s company the green light to build a profile of someone through info-saving cookies.

At least, that’s what Europe thinks. As for the U.S., there is no real consensus on what to do. Yang Wang, an assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, said most data protection laws are specific to the industry, which are self-regulated. Not surprisingly, this self-regulation isn’t clamping down on the matter. It’s unclear if the U.S. ever will, either.

“In the history of the U.S. data protection legislation, there have been numerous proposals for universal data protection laws,” Wang said.  “It has never really come to fruition. There’s a real question whether, and how, the U.S. is going to regulate data protection.”

I don’t care how it gets done, as long it does. If the people running the show aren’t going to do anything about, then we need the millennial generation and those who have used the internet for as long as they can remember to make a change.

We’ve been told from a very young age, “watch what you put on the Internet.” Well, it’s time for us to watch the companies that watch what we put on the Internet.

The World Wide Web isn’t the wild-wild west of data. But we need sheriffs, and right now France is the only one putting on a badge.

Paul Sarconi is a senior broadcast and digital journalism major. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at pjsarcon@syr.edu and followed on Twitter @paulsarconi.

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