What Does the Internet Have to Do with Privacy?

When we talk about privacy on the internet it isn’t black and white. There are categories, shall we say, and where the uncrossable line lies is different depending on who you are and what information you want.

Let’s start with Facebook. The company has endured a lot of criticism for frequently changing it’s privacy policy and the results of these changes. Most recently, the company introduced “Timeline” and insisted that users adjust accordingly. Adjusting meant not only learning the new interface, but checking new and old privacy settings to make sure they were still to the user’s taste. What was new with Timeline was not what information was available, but how it was available.

It was more visible than before, which turned out to be embarrassing for some users because Facebook usage and consequently Timeline may have begun in early teen years and as adults, the content posted then looked immature and silly.

Beyond this, Timeline turned out to be more or less harmless. Aside from a privacy glitch in which some users claimed old private messages were visible to their friends at large on Timeline, the new interface prominently displayed only what the user had willingly posted. Unfortunately, once we spew information about ourselves and our lives out into the Internet’s abyss, we must maintain and monitor and continue to guard that information; it’s just one of the responsibilities and some of the consequences one should accept when creating an account on a site like Facebook.

A greater concern with Facebook has been Facebook’s place in employment and the work place. Some employers have ventured so far as to ask interviewees for their Facebook passwords, in order to check out their activity from within the account (rather than facing potential privacy walls that user may have set).

Slowly, this controversy is being responded to with legislation banning the practice of employers asking for employee passwords. Until it is outlawed everywhere, though, there is an unfortunate choice between walking out of an interview with little chance of getting the job but keeping privacy in-tact, or having to bare all to potential employer’s prying eyes.

Combating this problem in some ways is a redirection of professional online activity and communication with sites such as LinkedIn, which exist solely for professionals to find each other and network. By creating a professional network online, the need for employers to snoop through Facebook is somewhat nullified. Furthermore, for those who wish to connect with their work colleagues but don’t want those colleagues to know them in as openly social a way as Facebook, LinkedIn is a good alternative.

What might be called “activity privacy” is a different ballgame. Just as before the internet our friends, family, advertisers, and government outside our homes could not view the books we read, the movies we watched, the things we looked up in dusty encyclopedias, and so on, so should they be unable to know what we do on the Internet. This is where the Government is likely the most curious to explore opportunities to watch citizens’ behaviour. Google has already proven that to at least some degree information about a user can be utilized by collecting and analyzing information on where that user visits. Google, of course, does this by inserting personalized ads on the sites a user visits, which change as they visit sites of various interests.

Many pieces of legislation have been posed in both Canada and the United States that would allow the government unprecedented access to citizens’ information and online activity. For the most part, these pieces of legislation have been beaten back by Internet activists.

However, this week many Americans will be subjected to a new “Copyright Alert System” or CAS, if they subscribe to one of the five major Internet providers which have signed on to this program. That system will dramatically slow Internet connection speeds for users suspected of copyright infringement. A similar system is in place in France which entirely cuts off Internet usage to repeat pirating offenders.

Should the government be watching our online activities? Once the government has the ability to monitor if you’re stealing or not, they will also have the ability to monitor and know much more and the user risks being misconstrued and wrongly accused.