Regulating Privacy in the Online World

Things are moving forward on the privacy front.
In April, the so-called “Group 29”, an advisory body to the European Commission on privacy and public liberties matters, issued a memo in which it analyzed the activity of data-mining internet companies. More specifically, it sought to establish whether they respected the European regulatory framework which is composed of two directives:
–    the data protection directive, adopted in 1995, that ranks privacy as a fundamental right and establishes a set of general principal regarding personal data protection in the European Union;
–    the ePrivacy directive, adopted in 2002, that specifically targets electronic communications (for instance, it states that users must be able to refuse cookies).

In its communication, the Group 29 gave an interpretation of the body of the directives, listing a set of principles that should apply to data-mining companies (see page 24 of the memo). It also called on the European Commission to legislate further on this issue. The aim? Acknowledging technological changes and making sure that the principles established by the 1995 directive are clearly transposed in the online world.

In the United States, Congress is shaking things up too. This past July, a few congressmen opened fire by scrutinizing NebuAd, a company that provides technology aimed at inspecting data packets circulating on Internet Service Providers’ networks so as to monitor users’ online activities. On August 1st, the Committee on Energy and Commerce expanded its investigation on behavioral advertising by sending a list of questions to more than thirty internet companies, among which were Google, Microsoft but also AT&T or Comcast. The action has already triggered some interesting moves.

The first announcement came from Yahoo… In their letter, the congressmen asked why most data-mining companies didn’t provide users with “opt-out” features. Now Yahoo’s recent advertising agreement with Google is being reviewed by the Justice Department so that the company has to act carefully when dealing with the federal Government. Hence, Yahoo conveniently announced that by the end of August it will introduce such functionality. Is that enough? Well, that might even be too much. As Yahoo’s privacy chief recalls, most users favor more tailored ad. Conseqently, the question is not about opting out of innovation, but about the ability to control exactly what data companies collect about their users and what they do with it. Ads are tailored, so should user’s control over their personal data be.

Google adopted a different, in my opinion smarter, plan of action. In its own communication to Congress, it began by distancing itself from NebuAd’s deep packet inspection strategy and then assured that it does not require personally identifiable information – even though this is not true if you register for Google’s other products such as Gmail. It defined its advertising practices as “contextual” and not “behavioral”, since it doesn’t keep track of users’ browsing history – even though users can access that function when they have a Google account. Besides, to protect users’ privacy, Google has so far refused to correlate data over its various services (Gmail, Blogger, search engines, iGoogle, Google Reader and others).
In the US, privacy law is segmented. No horizontal privacy standard applies like in Europe. Instead, different states have different regulations for different sectors (banking, healthcare, airlines etc) and there are consequently 39 applicable laws regarding privacy across the US! In its conclusion, Google therefore pledges to support any initiative that aims to unifying privacy regulation at the federal level and offers its cooperation.

These evolutions, on an issue as sensitive as privacy, are very significant and reflect a more general trend. By moving a little more each day in the internet cloud, our societies are confronted with very complex issues related to the intangible nature of the cyberspace (copyright is another good example). For new technologies challenge principles our legal system has long relied on. They unsettle the bedrock of our social contract. Here, the matter is not one of arbitration between security and freedom but between traditional fundamental rights, such as every individual’s to privacy protection, and technological innovation, which also brings social innovation and creates new rights. In this debate that has only just begun Internet companies must participate in the discussion and fully undertake the highly political nature of their activities. By taking part in the public debate and mindfully adapting their business practices, they will really prove themselves responsible businesses.

Photo on Flickr by sunside under Creative Commons License.

The Political Economy of Internet Search Engines

This article by Elizabeth Van Couvering, from the London School of Economics, is now four years old and thus allows to put in perspective the evolution of web search engines, which have become key players of the information society. She makes a few interesting points:

  1. The author classifies search engines as media, saying that their business model is very similar to that traditional media of mass communication such as television or newspapers. They too provide content (searches), trying to attract the widest audience – or traffic – in order to place advertising, which constitutes a major share of their revenues.
  2. Then she analyzes the rise of one innovative feature of search engines compared to traditional media, namely search-related ads, which are revolutionizing the advertisement industry. Behavioral targeted ads have now taken much bigger proportions and are not limited to web searches anymore (with now a whole variety of data mining methods). This innovation has boosted internet advertising  (+25% in 2007) and is eventually destabilizing traditional media, since advertisers tend to transfer their budgets online.
  3. Finally, the article examines how the “objectivity” of search algorithms is being tricked by search spamming, and discusses the incidence of other defects embedded in search engines on the public sphere. Indeed search engines are the gatekeepers of the web and it is therefore crucial that they don’t bypass part of it. The Chinese version of Google for instance doesn’t provide users with satisfactory results with respect to democratic standards. For that reason the relevance of searches, even though its definition is relative, should represent a key point of the debate on search engines.

However, four years later the public debate about Google and the like tends to be less focused on their ability to provide users with inclusive index and comprehensive searches. Today, the major issue search providers face is that of privacy and it is the field where regulatory attempts are the most perceptible.
Does that mean we are now totally satisfied with ability of search engines to come up with unbiased content, that is to say to genuinely reflect what is going on the web?

MySpace: A Revolutionary Link Between the People and the Cultural Industries (2/2)

What makes MySpace unique, along with other sites based on the same concept, such as Last.fm, is their unique and revolutionary service of popular culture broadcaster (so far, mainly music) relying on the technology of the Web 2.0. They link social networking and self-representation, and the prominent place of popular culture in identity formation and social interaction. However, these new services greatly destabilize the traditional grounds on which the cultural industries are organized, especially in terms copyright and licenses. This is a phase of transition for the cultural industries and while very few people contest the interest of social networks for the creative industries, intense debates are going on to try to reach a point of equilibrium between the different actors. MySpace in particular has the function of the aggregator of cultural products but also encourages the publishing of user-generated content, of which legal status is not very clear (public/private domain). Also, users now have the technologies to easily express their creativity by editing and remixing pieces of popular culture, a practice which poses its own set of legal issues (Lilley. 2006).

However, the emergence of this new type of media poses other, maybe more crucial questions. As other Information and Communication Technologies, the web 2.0 has a more and more important place in the socialization process, especially for children and teenagers. Although MySpace is a virtual space, real and meaningful social relationships take place within it. If a 12 years-old girl can’t log onto MySpace for material reason (she does not have access to a computer, neither at home nor at school), she is prevented from participating in the social life from which her other friends benefits and is likely to be quickly somehow excluded from the group. Plus, as Henry Jenkins and others point out in a recent White Paper (2007), engaging in the web 2.0 allows the acquisition of technical and mental skills that are valued in today’s workplace and that are of great importance for a full conception of citizenship in the modern age. Denouncing a widening “participation gap”, they propose that the educational system embrace these new opportunities to make young people both aware and critical of the impact of media on their lives, but also equipped with the appropriate tools to express their subjectivity in meaningful ways in the “participatory culture”.

MySpace and the like are part of a revolution; a revolution that brings new ways of thinking about ourselves, new ways of communicating with each other, and new ways to consume popular culture. So far, most of these ventures have been a commercial success, in spite of the many criticisms that have been addressed to these endeavors. As with every revolution still in process, it is unsure what the final consequences of the development of online social networks will be. Still, as citizens, we must recall that any technology is only as good as the use that is made of it. While being aware of the ethical problems that MySpace and its consorts might bring, we must try to influence the current reshaping of certain social and legal relations that they originate so as to make them beneficial for the whole society. We should try to promote richer ways of identity expression and possibly more authentic relationship with artists and creators.

Photo on Flickr by Joits under Creative Commons License.