Thursday, December 20, 2012

Instagraming Privacy

Once there was a time when people bought records and CD’s. We slaved in lowly part time jobs to earn the cash to go to that temple we called Tower Records and buy that album we had lusted over for many a week. Then came this anarchic upstart the Internet and it gave us new tools with which to slowly break down barriers and do things such as share music with each other without paying. Soon a whole generation was brought up imbued with the sense that music should be free. The music industry, lobbyists and politicians scrambled to keep up with the blinding speed that the Internet was changing our lives. The world wide web, just a little over twenty years old now still to this day challenges engrained rules and perceptions.

What were once walled edifices of copyright content and privacy have come crashing down or have slowly eroded away. While it refashions beliefs and organically creates a new culture around it we are challenged by rules and assumptions fashioned from another time. Things we took for granted are no longer there or have mutated. The crisis the music industry first had to contend with wrought on by the Internet ten years ago is similar to the crisis of privacy individuals have today. Copyright content we once paid for was given away for free through file-sharing. Now personal content that we created ourselves freely would be sold to make money and with it questions of privacy and what is considered private content not to be sold to individuals and groups wanting it.

The trading of personal information, from web-browsing patterns found on cookies to created content is a huge business. For over a decade Google has been at the forefront of this, using the information of users to fashion advertising more related to the person using their search system. During the recent presidential election, huge sums of money was spent by both campaigns to what they termed “data-mining” to micro-target possible voters. Your Internet usage is now a commodity that many people unwittingly know is being traded.

However it is in the realm of social media where the biggest consternation is unfolding. Websites such as Facebook and Twitter are closed environments, restricting the information that can be accessed and sold to prospective data-miners. That is not for want of trying as this week’s events prove. Earlier this year prior to its flotation, Facebook bought Instagram for a cool one billion dollars. The price seemed like one picked out from the sky, such was its stratospheric valuation for a company that allowed people to take photos in different styles and hues. Facebook has given a reason somewhat for the high price by announcing an update to the photo-sharing company’s privacy policy allowing it to sell users’ photos to advertisers without notifying them. Facebook has been under pressure from investors and shareholders to ramp up revenue from advertisers since its flotation and the popularity of Instagram and the data reamed from interactions with users seemed like a sure bet. That is until questions of privacy blew up in their faces as social media went in to a frenzy over the possible use of personal content and threats by many to boycott Instagram until the changes in privacy policy were revoked.

The issue at hand is that the Internet has broken down barriers and a new environment where things once private could be disseminated and thus fair game for people who make money from that information. The old walls of intended or unintended privacy have been pried open by the Internet and created a strange new world. While people feel they have a right to send and disseminate certain material without prosecution, information they thought was private before due to circumstance was now through simple, hidden things such as cookies, available to others and sold for a price.

There is no doubt that the issue of privacy is central to the debate about the good and ills of the Internet. Where legislation has failed to catch-up, it has been left to companies themselves to manufacture what they consider private or public, thus creating confusion and at times fear of personal violation whether justified or not. Companies themselves have created an environment of what they consider to be fair game in the selling of personal data that is in conflict with what individuals consider, just as Internet users changed their opinion about the rights and wrongs of sharing of music online ten years ago. Many jurisdictions have been moving towards creating regulations in respect to Internet privacy with the European Union and its multiple political organs mainly at the forefront. Earlier this year saw the passing of the Data Protection Directive regulating what data can be processed and sold to other parties. However the process is a slow one and considering very few people saw the power of social media five or six years ago, the issue of internet privacy will continue to be debated as the evolution of the Internet continues and permeates our society even more. The fear is that before strongly enforced data privacy laws are fashioned, a new culture of acceptance of data-mining and the misuse of personal information becomes so commonplace that a new culture where the majority don't consider it a major issue. Just as people in some countries resign themselves to the fact that their politicians are corrupt, the lack of enforcement will reduce people's desire to fight back in the future. If that is to occur basic privacy is diluted for the next generation. When that happens, industry rather than the individual will benefit. 

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