Know Your *Digital* Rights!
These days, Technology develops so fast, it’s near impossible for laws to catch up. In 2016, US Congress called Mark Zuckerberg to answer questions about Facebook’s involvement and potential interference with US Elections in 2016. Instead of a hard hitting session with tough questions, it ended up being a snooze fest of technologically challenged elderly Senators asking bizarre questions.
Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz asked “If I am emailing within WhatsApp.. Does that inform your advertisers?” while another asked if Twitter is the same as Facebook.
But jokes aside, lawmakers seem to be making some progress with our digital rights. Many countries have recently passed data privacy laws. These are laws designed to protect regular people by providing them with a right to know what kinds of personal data companies are collecting.
You may have noticed a few years ago a shift happened that made all the websites you visit ask you for permission to track your cookies. That was because in 2018 the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect in the European Union. It is designed to give individuals more control over their personal data and to hold companies accountable for protecting it.
Every website is required under the GDPR to let users from inside Europe control the activation of cookies and trackers that collect personal data. Even if a business and its server is not within the EU, as long as users from Europe visit, they would have to comply with the GDPR.
Dark Patterns to look out for
Sometimes it is really easy to reject all optional cookies, only allowing for the strictly necessary ones. Other times a website will do everything in their power to prevent you from finding a way to reject cookies. This is called a dark pattern in design.
Dark patterns in cookie banners are really common nowadays. As you’ve likely experienced it somewhat forces “consent” upon you
These dark patterns manipulate consent and are therefore still able to collect personal data from as many people as possible.
It seems the more we migrate our lives into the digital realm, the harder it becomes to control our privacy at all. The line between our private and public lives has become so blurred by technology, that the online representation of ourselves is often more intimate and more exposed than our real life personas.
A continuous and permanent catalog of our lives is inscribed in the history of the internet forever. Our lives are quite literally an open book.
We’ve been conditioned to hand over personal information to every platform or service we sign up to, or we are simply locked out of “the system”. We sacrifice more and more details about ourselves unnecessarily, so businesses can manipulate us into buying more things.
Can GDPR be a tool for Censorship?
While a well-meaning step in the right direction towards greater user privacy, GDPR has been criticized for preventing the publication of sensitive information in investigative journalism.
In Romania, a group of journalists working on an anti corruption story were told by the government that they could not publish their findings. They were also asked to give up their sources and were threatened with a fine of up to 20 million euros.
Romania is not a unique example. Other stories are emerging from different places including Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.
It is crucial that data protection laws are enforced in a way that balances the need for privacy with the need for free speech and the public’s right to know. Individuals, organizations and governments must work together to ensure that data protection laws are not used as a tool for censorship and repression, but rather as a way to protect citizens’ rights and privacy.
Laws, loopholes and lack of privacy
While the misuse of GDPR has been a cause for concern, not having any data protection laws is hardly a better solution.
The legal system in the US has both state level and federal level laws. So far there has not been a federal law protecting data privacy. Everytime there is a court case regarding this issue, Supreme Court judges use a collection of previous cases from different states to make their verdicts.
In recent years there have been many attempts by lawmakers in Congress to address this issue--but none have made it very far. Bills such as S-1670 (the "Data Security and Breach Notification Act") and H-R 3180 ("Privacy Notice Requirements for Online Behavioral Advertising") are currently pending before Congress as of 2023; if passed they would establish some basic requirements for companies operating online services with US users (though these requirements would still be less stringent than those imposed by GDPR).
Across the Pacific Ocean , China has scaled up its mass surveillance technologies, which are the most sophisticated in the world. Rather than moving towards privacy-respecting policies, surveillance has permeated into the social landscape, with thousands of companies collecting data about their users. According to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), there were 772 million internet users as of 2018-- more than half of all people living in the country.
Though In 2021, China passed their own data protection laws. It was similar to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, but the law did not protect users from ruling Communist parties’ own surveilland and data collection actions.
The Chinese Communist Party has been accused of using data gathered about Uyghurs and other members of the predominantly Muslim ethnic group in the northwestern region of Xinjiang to carry out a widespread campaign of repression, with many claims of torture and murder in the camps.
These examples highlight the potential for data privacy laws to malfunction when they are not properly enforced - or when they are not created at all.
Fight for your privacy rights
In 2017, President Donald Trump passed a law which allows internet service providers to gather and share their customers personal data without their consent, like your web history and what apps you use. The UK’s Snoopers Charter grants the government the right to legally monitor the internet usage of its citizens.
Data protection laws are necessary and important in today's digital age, where personal information is collected and shared on a massive scale. laws should respect our right to privacy, while giving us the freedoms that we are owed, such as free speech and the public’s “right to know”.
So how do we make our privacy a default setting? The laws which govern our personal data have mostly benefited corporate needs, governments and their agencies.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. There are people working to ensure that we have our digital rights and freedoms. A great example of this is The European Digital Rights. EDRi is an association of civil and human rights organizations from across Europe.
Founded in 2002 with headquarters in Belgium, this network of nonprofits, activists and experts have been a vocal advocate of digital rights and freedoms. If you would like to know more about their work, subscribe to their newsletter or join their efforts you can visit their website here.
In the meantime as consumers, we should be aware that our data is being tracked by companies who use this information for marketing purposes, usually sold to other businesses. There are steps you can take now to protect yourself from being exploited by these companies--such as using a VPN service.
We are biased, but Mysterium VPN is one of the most affordable and dependable options out there. You can do the research for yourself, and we'll be waiting for you over at our subscription page...
It is easy to download and set up, and you will be paying as you go so you can max out the gigabytes you paid for.
Stay safe online and offline.