Can Privacy Survive the Digital Age?

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Written by Hannah Bergstrom

Have we compromised our privacy to have the world at our fingertips? Can privacy survive the digital age? These were the questions raised at the Protecting Privacy conference held by The Atlantic magazine recently.

Mark Warner, Virginia Senator and Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee stressed the responsibility of companies to protect consumers. On September 5, the Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing with executives from Twitter and Facebook to discuss stricter regulation of social media sites. As social media has brought up issues of national security and censorship, especially during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, Warner predicted that both Republican and Democratic parties will push for reform. “…people will realize that the days of the wild wild west are over”, said Warner, “that there needs to be some guardrails” when it comes to internet privacy.

Following this discussion, Representative Jerry McNerney of California joined on stage to talk about the view on privacy from the perspective of the House. One of the points that McNerney raised was the conflict between first amendment rights and content that is hate speech or incites violence. This “cat and mouse” issue will require some of the greatest minds in both tech and government to solve. This issue was also a topic of discussion at the September 5 Senate hearing with Facebook and Twitter executives. The tug-of-war between censoring hate speech and limiting political expression has been and will continue to be debated between social media sites and policymakers.

Questions about the legal aspects of consumer security were raised by moderator and journalist Kathleen Koch, who was joined by a panel including Harriet Pearson (Partner, Hogan Lovells), Bruce Schneier (Fellow, Berkman Klein Center for Internet Society), and Ari Waldman (Professor of Law and Director, Innovation Center for Law and Society).

Pearson, who has been nicknamed the “First Lady of Privacy”, brought up transparency in lawmaking decisions about privacy. “There’s not a grassroots movement on privacy—why is that?” Pearson asked. She continued, “Part of the answer is that we conceptualize privacy individually as lots of different things”. Whether it be privacy of our physical location or personal information being used by third parties, Pearson argued that we each have different ideas about what privacy means. However, she suggested that by increasing transparency and accountability without over-regulating, we can find a balance that accounts for everyone’s different needs.

There have been movements led by government entities and tech industry leaders, both in the United States and globally, that have attempted to find this balance. California Assembly member Ed Chau and Peter Fatelnig (Minister-Counsellor for Digital Economy Policy) took the stage next to discuss these efforts. Chau talked about the recently passed California Consumer Privacy Act (AB-375), which will be in effect in 2020. The purpose of AB-375 is to give consumers more control of their personal information, by giving them the right to know what data is being collected, to refuse to share personal data with companies, and to delete data that has been recorded. Although the bill has been somewhat controversial, Chau cited the Act as a huge victory for consumers. “One of the benefits about this law is that it basically validates the consumer’s right, regarding data privacy”, he explained.

Another influential and controversial policy regarding data privacy is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that was created by the European Union in 2016 and implemented this past May. The GDPR sets strict legal conditions for the collection and use of personal data from businesses. This law applies to organizations operating in the EU as well as organizations that provide services to consumers in the EU. Ultimately, this means that most major corporations are or will be affected by the GDPR. This landmark legislation sets a precedent for other governing organizations that will need to make decisions about data collection and privacy in the near future. “Inaction is no longer an option” Chau concluded.

The concluding panel was led by Editor Steve Clemons and consisted of leaders in the tech industry—Victoria Espinel (President and CEO, BSA; The Software Alliance), Michael Beckerman (CEO, The Internet Association), and Dean Garfield (President and CEO, Internet Technology Industry Council). These tech leaders were confident in the future of data security. “If you think about the most significant economic issues over the last 300 years”, said Garfield, “we’ve created regulations for dealing with them. With data, it’s all very new. We haven’t developed the rules yet.” According to Espinel, the industry is working hard to develop these rules and make important changes. She said, “The premise that our companies aren’t being thoughtful about social constructs is not true. We are thinking about the number of social impacts that are being driven by technology.”

One of the major takeaways that was echoed by all speakers, is that when it comes to regulation, consistency will be necessary. As shown with the implementation of GDPR, data regulation has global effects. In general, consumers do not want their privacy or data regulations to change when they cross state or country lines. Now more than ever, it is crucial for governments to work together to create consistent policies that protect consumers and can be implemented by major businesses. The issue of internet privacy may seem to be a complicated web that cannot be untangled, but as industry leaders and policymakers work together and maintain a dialogue, we can create a world where we have the right to privacy.