Descending the Slope: On Civil Rights Online

NACHTI have to admit, sometimes I get tired of hearing about privacy and the internet. Even as someone a little bit obsessed with studying new media and someone concerned with civil rights, I often shamefully tune out well-intentioned warnings about the safety of my private data. Maybe it’s because at times these types of cautions can feel culturally irrelevant, an older generation’s Luddite attempts to curtail a younger generation’s love affair with technology. Or maybe it’s because I’ve already accepted a new normal when it comes to my identity online; recently rereading Jeffrey Rosen’s 2010 article in the New York Times Magazine, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” I found myself skimming uninterested over passages about jobs lost to incriminating Facebook photos or companies created to manage online reputations. I’ve already learned the artful untag, the utility of cautious posting.

Yet, events such as the recent federal court decision on Twitter records for me bring privacy sharply back into focus. As part of the U.S. government’s ongoing investigation into WikiLeaks, the Justice Department requested in January that Twitter turn over a variety of stored information about several WikiLeaks associates, using a 1994 law called the Stored Communications Act to justify a lack of search warrant. The case was brought to court, where on Thursday a federal judge ruled that the government could indeed inspect the users’ private data without a warrant, allowing access to IP addresses, bank information, mailing addresses, and other similar details. The ruling hinged on the content of Twitter’s privacy policy, which the judge argued already informed users that their data was subject to this type of collection.

Often, warnings about privacy are framed within arguments about the “slippery slope.” If we allow this, then we could potentially allow this, and then what if the government did this? Yet, it seems to me that when the government is empowered to do secret warrantless searches on any user data held by online companies, the slope has already been at least partially descended.

In an attempt to gain a little perspective on what stores of information are out there regarding my own user profiles, I recently took advantage of Facebook’s “Download Archive” option (located in your “Account Settings”), which allowed me to browse a static file of all the wall posts, messages, photographs, and other data that have accumulated throughout my social networking past. Now, to be clear, this likely isn’t all the information Facebook has collected in my name. If the company is logging IP addresses, as Twitter was, they’re stored in some proprietary location. Yet, even just browsing through several years of wall posts and private messages reminded me how much sheer clutter exists regarding my private life online. The contents aren’t revelatory, even very interesting. But I still wouldn’t be entirely comfortable with government bodies browsing through without my knowledge or explicit consent.

The fact that the Twitter privacy policy played such an instrumental role in the judge’s ruling makes me think that the key to creating a more protected internet for users is less about challenging legal issues in court (although, this too is clearly extremely important) and more about finding ways for users to more effectively advocate for their own interests to large online corporations. If we can build alternative open-source social networks that solve privacy dilemmas, such as Diaspora, so much the better, but for now, when several large companies exert such dominance, it seems to me we should be asking how users can leverage their numbers to demand greater protection, more accountability, and more privacy from their providers.

NACHT is a Swarthmore-based, outward-looking literary organization that publishes essays, fiction and poetry, visual art and any combination thereof.  Please visit nachtmagazine.org for blogs, events and archival issues of our periodical The Night Cafe.


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