Personal Privacy on the Internet

Monitor_padlockBecause of the NSA spying revelations and the constant news that the big web companies are building a profile of everybody in the country, privacy is a hot topic. It should be fairly obvious to anybody who uses the Internet that whatever you do on-line can be seen by somebody else. But this doesn’t mean that you don’t have some rights. So I started digging around to see just what rights we have as Internet users, and conversely what rights we don’t have. Here is what I found.

Your Personal Data is Really Not Yours. It’s a fairly common assumption that people own their own data. But if you give your personal data to a web site you no longer own that data. You gave it up voluntarily. Websites often make promises to not share that data with other companies, but it’s the extremely rare web company that doesn’t use your data for their own purposes.

I think this misunderstanding comes from the fact that every website has some sort of privacy disclosure and if you read through it quickly (as we all do, if we read these at all), you might get this notion. But all that these web sites promise you is that they will not violate any creative expression or content that you have provided to them. That is a protection provided by US privacy law and extends beyond the Internet. But since web sites rarely get any intellectual or artistic content from you that would be protected, they are free to use anything else you give them. Your name and the fact that you like potato chips is not protected content.

The reality is the opposite of what most people think and the same laws that protect any creative content you create also protect the contents of the databases created by the web companies. If anything, once you give them your information they have more rights to further use it than you do.

People Cannot Take Back Their Content. It’s another common misperception that you can ask a website to delete you and everything about you. But once you have voluntarily given out information about yourself, you have no right to recall it. Websites might allow you to take down a listing or page about you, but there is nothing that requires them to purge your information from their databases. In researching this I saw a very good summary of this point, which is to be very careful what you say on the web, because it is theoretically going to be out there forever.

You Don’t Have the Right to be Anonymous. Many people believe that they can maintain their privacy by creating a fictitious persona on the Internet. Obviously you can’t do this anywhere you shop or you would never get what you ordered. And it’s potentially unlawful to create a false persona on a social web site.

Sites like Facebook and Linked-In want to know who you really are and it is certainly a violation of their terms of service for you to be on these sites under a false persona. I saw an estimate recently by Facebook who thinks about 15% of their users are under false names. It’s certainly a benefit to Facebook to know who you are and so they are free to kick you off their site for supplying a false identity.

If you use a fictitious persona you are breaching the contract you sign with them when you sign up. While it can be argued that is breaking the law it is not likely that Facebook is ever going to go after somebody for this. However, you are violating several laws that are part of the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and if you are ever found doing something else nefarious on your computer they could layer on these charges as well.

You Have No Basic Privacy Rights. People assume that they have some sort of privacy rights when dealing with sites like Facebook. But in fact, the privacy laws today are more for their protection than yours. Companies like Facebook are afforded broad free speech rights that lets them basically trample over your privacy. There are no constitutional or specific statutes that give the average consumer any rights on the Internet or on social media sites.

And thus, once you voluntarily log in and give up your information voluntarily these companies are within their rights to resell information about you to advertisers or to do pretty much anything else they want to do with it.

One thought on “Personal Privacy on the Internet

  1. Dear Doug:
    As a parent, a trainer/teacher, and a telecom professional, I — and others like us — find our selves in the unique position of understanding exactly what people are up against in relation to transacting business over the Internet.
    Simply put, if you want the whole world to know something, by all means post it on the Internet, regardless of what anybody claims about privacy.
    Every year or two, a teacher somewhere is forced from his or her job by revelations found of their wild college days, and the items that were posted to — and supposedly scrubbed from — the Internet.
    Even if you absolutely know and trust a given website, you still must be VERY, VERY careful how you transact business there.
    Conversely, as businesses looking to complete more and more transactions with customers over the Internet, it is their responsibility to be doubly and triply sure that data is secure. This past holiday season, a number of businesses learned that lesson the hard way.

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