Why Our Online Privacy Won’t Change For the Better

There’s nothing society loves more than some good old righteous indignation, especially when it comes to our personal privacy. We react with outrage when the government collects data from our phones. We all signed up for the Do Not Call Registry, and we get angry when we still get telemarketer calls. We pretend we don’t want our data collected online—pretend because, as long as the service is free, we’ve shown we’ll willingly trade privacy for reduced-price or free digital services. The Numbers Don’t Add Up According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, 80 percent of American adults surveyed worry about businesses accessing the data they share on the site, and 70 percent are concerned about the government accessing that same data. Yet despite these concerns, Facebook still has 864 million active users per day, and 1.3 billion active users per month, so people are still doing a lot of sharing. And that’s despite documented instances of legitimate privacy concerns, not tin foil hat paranoia. The study also found 61 percent of Americans disagree with the notion that increased access to personal information makes online services more efficient. Even so, 55 percent agree they’re willing to share personal information in exchange for free access to online services, like social media. As many Internet and media experts have noted, when we use free online services in exchange for advertising, we are the product being sold. Putting Our Mouth Where Our Money Isn’t The results of this study send a message to all those online services collecting and selling our data: people will complain about your service and its privacy policy, but we’ll probably continue to use it anyway. Facebook has generated controversy after controversy, and people complain for a while—usually using Facebook itself—before coming right back. By now, we all know Google keeps track of our online history, sometimes in violation of the law, but it’s still by far the number one online search engine. We’ve now been online long enough that our preferences have become ingrained to the point that we mock Google competitors for trying to create something better, instead of welcoming the possibility of a better product. What a Tangled World Wide Web We Weave If online services aren’t likely to change the way they handle our personal information, then we’ll have to change our online behavior. Over 60 percent of survey respondents say they’d like to do more to protect their information online, but only 24 percent say it’s easy to be anonymous online. An editorial in “The Guardian” speculates that some of us want to blame it on “our old friend Tina (There Is No Alternative),” that we’ve simply accepted that a lack of privacy is a price we have to pay for online services. It’s easy to see why actually changing behavior is difficult when our Gmail password now logs us into our YouTube and Google+, accounts, and many third-party sites now use and sometimes even require a Facebook profile for account signup or commenting. The more the online services we use become intertwined, the less likely it is that we’ll abandon one because of how it will affect our use of the others. Pew indicates that 91 percent of people surveyed believe consumers aren’t in control of how their online personal data is collected and used, but 88 percent believe it would be “very difficult” to remove information about them online. Unlike Japan and Europe, America doesn’t have “right to be forgotten” laws. Should we? What We Can Do About It If we want to change how online services handle our personal information, we have to change our online behavior. If Google really bothers us, try an alternative like DuckDuckGo that doesn’t track our browsing history. If we don’t like how Facebook handles our information, we need to be selective in the information we provide. If we show, not tell, these online services that we value our privacy, they’ll begin to value it as well. Perhaps the only thing worse about worrying about our online information is worrying about it over a slow connection. Enter your zip code below to find other Internet plans available in your area. Image by lsengardt/Flickr [zipfinder]

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Will Smith is a copywriter living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His favorite word is “petrichor,” and aside from wordplay, he loves reading history, watching Dodger baseball, and racing with the Sports Car Club of America.

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