Since its inception the guiding vision and principle for the World Wide Web has been to create an open and free space for people to share information and knowledge. However, in today’s world, information has become big business.
Despite the existence of open source technologies and the aspirations of many to utilise digital technologies to maximise the economic and social value of data (OECD, 2017), in the digital marketplace these aspirations are often left wanting. A greater concern is that the business of big data now poses a very real threat to personal privacy.
In 1989, at the renowned research centre CERN in Geneva, a scientist named Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. It allowed scientists and researchers across the globe to quickly and easily share information. Four years later, Berners-Lee made the software publicly available, for free.
“I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries.”
Berners-Lee continues to play a key role in developing web technology, infrastructure and policy. He is a thought leader, visionary and champion for an open and free web. In 2014, he used the 25th Anniversary of the web to call for a crowd-sourced Magna Carta for the Web (Berners-Lee, 2014), encouraging everyone to engage in how we want to see these technologies used in the future.
Tim Berners-Lee: A Magna Carta for the web (2014) – YouTube
This year, in The Guardian, he cites that “We have lost control of our personal data” (Berners-Lee, 2017) as the first of his three biggest concerns for the future of the web.
The Cost of Free
In the BBC documentary The Cost of Free, Dr Aleks Krotoski’s presents how free access to the web is made possible by services and platforms like Google and Facebook and suggests it could, in fact, be costing us more than we bargained for. (Mosa, 2010)
We the users, have become the product. With each keystroke, click-through and ‘like’ we are providing huge amounts of valuable personal data about ourselves. Data that is being compiled and sold.
Krotowski demonstrates how easy it is to identify a specific individual and to know an alarming amount about them. With vast amounts of personal data being tracked, monitored and stored on a constant basis, she raises the concerns – not just for our sense of privacy but also for freedom of expression and personal security.
Through a series of interviews Krotoski explores the risks to personal privacy that this new terrain presents. On the one hand the commentary is that the potential benefit of the web exceeds the potential threat. On the other hand, runs a narrative that fears we are blindly marching towards an inevitably dystopian future. A future where agencies, armed with the power of data, use this digital panopticon (Foucault, 1977) to Machiavellian ends. It’s certainly food for thought and well worth a watch.
The Cost of Free highlights a need for a greater awareness and wider public conversation on issues around security, privacy and identity on the web.
Your Digital Footprint
It is worth knowing how personal data is captured and what you can do to improve the security and privacy of your own internet use. The Internet Societies provide useful resources. In their series Your Digital Footprint Matters they provide an accessible and concise overview of the issues. This includes:
- How browsers and cookies collect data;
- The commercial relationship between publishers, aggregators and advertisers; and
- The regulatory frameworks and the challenges involved in protecting personal data and privacy across different jurisdictions.
They suggest that as the power to link data, storing, retrieval, correlation and analysis becomes more evident we will need increasingly more categories of data to fall within the scope of privacy and data laws. They also outline different regulatory approaches that have been taken. This ranges from a rights-based approach in the EU to more industry or technology-specific regulation in the US. Their conclusion is that there is unlikely to a single fix, rather it will require stakeholders to ‘engage in a process of evaluation and adjustment.’ (Internet Society, 2017)
We, the users, are and should be stakeholders in this process. We should be part of this conversation. Privacy on the web is clearly not simply a matter of personal responsibility. Many settings are beyond personal control. Often web services and applications require you to accept the settings or simply don’t use the service. The lack of user awareness and the unreasonable level of technical knowledge needed to manage your own privacy effectively are major barriers. (Internet Society, 2017)
Like the small print of terms and conditions, privacy settings are designed to be obtuse and inaccessible to users. The commercial digital processes involved in data storing, linking and sharing remain deliberately obscured.
Greater transparency around this topic and user awareness, through work like the Cost of Free documentary, is a critical first step to mitigating against these risks to personal security.
Berners-Lee, T., 2017. I invented the web. Here are three things we need to change to save it | Tim Berners-Lee. The Guardian.
Berners-Lee, T., 2014. Tim Berners-Lee: A Magna Carta for the web – YouTube [WWW Document]. YouTube. URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCplocVemjo (accessed 12.3.17).
Foucault, M., 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books.
Internet Society, 2017. Your Digital Footprint Matters [WWW Document]. Internet Soc. URL https://www.internetsociety.org/tutorials/your-digital-footprint-matters/ (accessed 12.3.17).
Mosa, H., 2010. BBC – The Virtual Revolution – Programme 3: the cost of free [WWW Document]. URL http://www.bbc.co.uk/virtualrevolution/makingofprog3.shtml (accessed 12.3.17).
OECD, 2017. Maximising the economic and social value of data – OECD [WWW Document]. URL http://www.oecd.org/internet/enhanced-data-access.htm (accessed 12.3.17).