Privacy seems hard to come by these days: between celebrity photo leaks and Twitter suing the US Government for breaking surveillance laws, our online lives seem more tenuous than ever. The Internet and social media have become an integral part of our lives, for better or worse, which makes the recent transgressions against our privacy that much more concerning.
In the first six months of 2014, Google received 31,698 data requests from governments asking for information about its users, complying with just under 75% of those. In the same period, Twitter received 2,000 data requests, up 46% from the previous six-month period. Facebook, in the first six months of 2013, received around 25,000 requests – 11,000 of which were from the US alone – with an average compliance rate around 75%. Governments across the globe are fully aware of the information-rich nature of social media and our Internet usage, but whether such requests for information are excessive or legitimate is a political issue still up in the air.
Whilst Internet giants Google, Facebook and Twitter do produce transparency reports, source of the above statistics, they are not wholly innocent in the matter of our online experience. Facebook recently came under massive criticism for a covert mood experiment in which they manipulated the emotional content of users’ newsfeeds. By prioritising ‘positive emotional content’ or ‘negative emotional content’, the social media giant discovered that they could influence users’ moods simply by exposing users to more or less of particular emotions – all without the consent of the 700,000 people affected.
So what to do? We have written before about the ambiguous legal space the Internet inhabits, but there are options for privacy-conscious users. You could try ‘anti-Facebook': in the wake of the backlash over Facebook’s mood experiment, users have been flocking to Ello, a minimalist social network with no ads and a promise not to sell user data. Diaspora is also an option, a social network in which each user has their their own personal web server, producing a distributed, decentralised social networking service in which all users own their own data.
The fact that an entire industry has sprung up around privacy, including third-party software, networks like Tor, and even phone apps to ensure you can browse anonymously, indicates that there is both a desire for privacy and a startling lack of it in mainstream services. The reality is that most of the free web services we use rely on advertising revenue to make a profit, and capitalising on that involves selling user data. We may soon see the corporate interests of our favourite web and social media services come to direct loggerheads with a widespread and urgent desire for privacy – and it remains to be seen who will win.