The Struggle Over Privacy Online

More and more data is being collected and stored in more and more data centers all over the world as the use and functionality of the internet expands.  Sites like Facebook now have in excess of 800 million users, half of which are active in any particular day.  An almost countless amount of information and data is shared with the public internet on a daily and hourly basis.  In addition, many businesses are using cloud-based services (like Google’s gmail or Google Apps,, Amazon marketplace, and a host of other solutions) to provide services and products to customers and manage their businesses.  As a result, we keep inventing names for the units of measure to calculate how much data is available throughout the world wide web (I mean, how many people do you know that use the term “exabyte” in conversation, really?).  The problem posed is what in the world all of this data is really being used for.

To answer that question is not simple.  A fair amount of what governs the protection, use and backup of data on the internet are private agreements between the service provider and the person or business who is putting data online.  When’s the last time you stopped and read one of those online “click-through” agreements?  I can’t say most are much fun to review (with an exception for the Sharebuilder user agreement, which took smoke breaks periodically and made entertaining chatter in between paragraphs of heavy-duty legal writing).  Commonly, these agreements (for services designed for consumers) severely limit the site operator’s liability, disclaim any and all warranties regarding the service, and few offer that many protections for your data or your privacy.  (See, for example, Second Life’s Privacy Policy which provides some limitations on data provided to the service, but your ability as a user to control access to your information is relatively limited in comparison to what Second Life may do with information about you.  Google’s Privacy Policy is somewhat more limiting on what Google might do with your data, but you will notice that there is some variation in policies based on the specific product you might be using).

There are also governmental regulations that may govern your privacy.  Facebook recently entered into a consent order with the Federal Trade Commission because of allegations of privacy invasions by Facebook.  Presumably, other nations or international bodies may have jurisdiction over some of the larger companies that operate on the internet.  And, just like other international intellectual property rights may vary by country, privacy regulation also is likely to vary (with some nations like Germany with more data protections than others, for example).  Ultimately, our privacy interests in part have taken a back seat to having “free” applications available to us all the time.  Google’s original product, web search, has historically been free to use by anyone connected to the internet, but only because advertisers have been willing to pay for click-through advertising.  As google continues to dominate the web search market, so has it also benefited from the many advertisers that are able to cost-effectively run ads alongside the web search engine’s results.  These ads are effective because they usually attempt to match up what a user is searching for with a product or service that might be relevant to the keywords.

Facebook (and other social media technologies) have, as well, informed our cultural disinterest in privacy, by providing a forum to post all sorts of the mundane, outrageous, or controversial information and graphics, and quickly disseminate this information to “friends” or the general public.  However, there has not yet emerged a “facebook” for health data (though, perhaps, the rise of health information exchanges and online personal health records may result in such an application).  Lawyers and accountants don’t (at least not intentionally) publish their client’s secrets online.  Our government has in recent years labeled many more documents as secret (and therefore, not as easy to obtain) following 9/11.  There remain islands of privacy in the sea of unfettered information access that is the internet.  If you value your privacy, you may need to pay more to preserve it, or be more discerning in the products and services you contract to purchase.


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Maryland technology attorney and college professor.

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