Digital media firms have long argued against privacy regulation asserting that regulators don’t understand the ways they work, that digital firms have strong incentives to protect the privacy of users, and that the firms do so through self-regulation.
Unfortunately, for years we have witnessed major digital players continually apologizing for their lapses in protecting the privacy of their customers, often violating their own policies and promises, and for not ensuring that others with whom they do business protect the privacy of the data they access and use. There has been a constant failure to put their customers’ privacy interests first and digital companies have dismissed criticism and call for regulation as misguided or perilous.
The regulations that have appeared, such as the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), have improved transparency and the abilities to control how some of their personal information is used, but is doing little to control the massive amounts of data compiled and interpreted by digital firms and digital advertisers based on search behavior, websites visited, purchases made, social media posts, articles and posts shared, video and music down streamed, apps used, and other digital activities.
Transparency in digital media remains highly limited, uses of personal data often unknown by or misunderstood by consumers, and consumer controls of use remain relatively ineffective. It is not enough for the central platforms of communication to argue that consumers can choose to use them or not. They have become critical infrastructure by design and business practices that facilitate communication down the street and around the world. Basic life functions ranging including labor, commerce, information, communication, entertainment, and governance activities are all dependent upon their structure and operations. Citizens should not be forced to choose between using these essential services and losing their privacy and autonomy.
It has become time for policymakers to start developing strong, enforceable privacy legislation that puts the interests of citizens above those of digital firms. Although governments economic incentives to support firms and obligations to ensure they aren’t destroyed with overregulation, the current situation is so unbalanced against individuals that only significant public regulation can create a reasonable balance between consumers and commercial interests.
Developments in the past quarter century of the digital world have revealed the abject failure of digital firms to self-regulation privacy. It is time to talk that privilege away from them.