Three years after Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, mass surveillance is still doing pretty well. As a matter of fact, after France and Germany, the UK has now adopted a new law on intelligence that will result in the loss of privacy.
The protection of private life has taken a new turn. The Internet changed our lives, making knowledge, information, and culture easily accessible to everyone without cost. The biggest companies in the world, Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (GAFA) provide services we all use on a daily basis at no cost. Whether you asked Google about a recipe, searched to find out more about an author you were unfamiliar with, or checked out that odd cough you had last week, you did not need to pay a penny. How then does Google make such a huge profit?
The trick is that every time you use Google’s tools, they save it and translate it into a virtual picture of yourself. Every time you type something or click on a link, a new dot is added to the drawing, and the more you use it, the more “accurate” the picture becomes. For advertising companies, this is essential in providing advertisements that are as relevant to your interests as possible. Google makes money selling this data. This is a win-win situation for both the customer and the corporate. The customer is faced with advertisements that are personally engaging while Google profits substaintially.
However, this issue with this virtual picture is that it includes private information that you might not want to share, such as your credit card details, your name, your address, your friends, and family members. Without strong legislative protection, there is almost nothing preventing the increasingly intrusive mass surveillance of our lives. It is the duty of the legislation to set a clear limit on this matter, as neither contract nor negotiation can give enough guarantees when it comes to the fundamental right of private life.
The other issue with this virtual picture is that this virtual representation of an individual is not actually completely representative. In order to give you access to the content that is relevant to your interest, and to show you the advertisement that suits you best, Google links your search terms to different principle boxes in order to personalise your future searches. This allows you to find relevant content as quickly as possible when searching on a particular subject. The main problem arises where Google gets to decides which dot goes to which box, which mean that it has to decide whether a complicated subject like euthanasia will be added to the murder box or medical box. These kinds of choices have huge consequences, especially as Google singlehandedly owns more than 60% of the search engine business in the US and around 90% in the EU. Their influence inevitably creates a bubble around users in which most of the content and opinions that are disagreeable to them is removed.
Furthermore, social networks, which are supposed to give you the opportunity to see and exchange different opinions, also use the same system. The chances of seeing a friend’s post regarding a significantly different point of view is low. As a result, you are pushed into thinking that your preferred viewpoint the only viewpoint. What is even more worrying is the fact that there is nothing illegal or morally reprehensible about this system in principle: it does not twist your opinion nor seek to imprison you inside a bubble. Rather, its main purpose is to have you consume as much as possible, which is ultimately the goal of every business, regardless of whether or not they are online.
The protection of consumers’ privacy is an imminent challenge we face, even though it is difficult to imagine a solution as present. It seems unimaginable to have legislation forbidding these practices, since it would disrupt the entire Internet system of remuneration. A realistic solution would be to adapt competition law in order to prevent a situation where companies enjoy a monopoly or an oligopoly, where currently half of the worlds’ online traffic goes through a handful of websites. We have seen how the EU has achieved this in the past by giving the opportunity to new actors to grow. This was evident when Microsoft was instructed to inform every Windows user that there were alternatives to Internet Explorer (when it previously had held a monopoly). Customers were also protected when it was held that Google should offer the “right to be forgotten”. It is only by giving users as much protection as possible that the Internet will be able to grow and connect users even more efficiently in the future.