How can legislation protect our privacy when it comes to social media? Before we can have a proper discussion about policy action, we have to take a step back and understand the dynamics of social media. The thing is, the erosion of our privacy by sites like Facebook is not a violation—it is the whole point. We don’t use social media; it uses us.
On Thursday, October 4th, Emma Teitel—a current affairs columnist at Maclean’s Magazine and nominee for Best New Magazine Writer at this year’s National Magazine Awards for The New Paparazzi—presented her arguments and ideas around social media, privacy, and legislation at the School of Public Policy and Governance. The crux of her argument: “The people we should be most weary of when it comes to the exposure of our personal information are not corporations, hackers, or the government, but ourselves.” If you truly want to protect your privacy, your only real option is abstinence.
Social media causes us anxiety when our privacy is violated, and many people argue sites like Facebook and Twitter violate our privacy repeatedly. However, we are increasingly out of touch with what it means to control privacy, so much so that we only think it has been violated when people tell us so. Teitel told a story of a speech she wrote that opened with facts she had gleaned from the participants’ Facebook profiles (they were listed as attending on the FB event page). To have their personal information read aloud—“Tom and Edith are no longer in a relationship”, “Meghan went to the Harry Potter 5 viewing partly last night dressed in a Hermione Granger costume”—made the audience feel their privacy was violated, even though that same information was posted publicly online. The point isn’t that this personal information is easily available, but that its owners willingly and intentionally made it public.
When government tries to protect our online privacy, it is generally through a narrative that we should protect ourselves by using common sense in what we share on the Internet—that “bad” people will exploit your personal information, that what is posted online stays online indefinitely, etc. The problem is that posting personal information is widely accepted as a norm. To compound the issue, others upload the majority of our personal information to the Internet: photos, videos, tweets. So, Teitel argues, “abstaining from social media means abstaining from our social realms.” If a teenager or job hopeful doesn’t want to be tagged drinking at a party, the only way to guarantee his or her privacy is to stay home. With the ubiquity of smart phones, most of us have instant access to social media at all times—photos and status updates abound. Avoiding social media means avoiding social situations. If you want to truly protect your privacy on social media, “abstinence isn’t the best policy, it’s the only one that works.”
If we accept that social media is a social norm, how do you legislate a social norm? You can’t. Not only can government not help protect our online privacy, Teitel argues that it won’t. There is little incentive for government to crack down on social media when they want our information as much as corporations do.
The follow up question is not only how do we legislate a social norm, but should we even do it in the first place? We willingly participate in social media. To truly protect your privacy on social media sites is to leave those sites entirely, but for the vast majority of us leaving is worse than staying—the prospect of not using social media is a nonstarter for most.
We are complicit in social media’s violation of privacy through our increasingly dependent use of these services. There is likely a place for policy, legislation, and regulation, but at this point we don’t know where or how, and the majority of users simply don’t care, or don’t care enough to wean themselves away from the world of tweets, updates, tags, and wall posts.
In the words of Emma Teitel: “Social media is a culture of surveillance, not a culture of sharing. We surrender aspects of our privacy for the ability to invade someone else’s. Until governments understand this, their policies will remain out of touch and ineffective.”
Max Greenwald is a co-Editor in Chief of the Public Policy and Governance Review. He is a 2013 Master of Public Policy Candidate from the School of Public Policy and holds a BA (Hons.) in Political Science from the University of Guelph.