EPIC’s Rotenberg talks ‘privacy paradox,’ legislative challenges with Rainie

1 05 2010

Lee Rainie, director of Pew Internet, led a final session at FutureWeb in which he discussed privacy issues with Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC.)

WWW 2010 - "Special Session: Marc Rotenberg & Lee Rainie." From left to right: Marc Rotenberg, Lee Rainie. (Photo: Elon University Relations photographer Kim Walker. )

Rotenberg is arguably the best-known privacy advocate in the world, and he and his team work to bring to light the emerging civil liberties issues tied to the many uses of technology.

“Mark is my number one teacher on these issues,” Rainie said in his introduction. “He has schooled us (at Pew) both directly and indirectly, and his work has stood up remarkably and robustly as this environment has changed.”

Rotenberg addressed the privacy paradox, where on one level Americans tend to place value in the ability to control identity, but at the same time they don’t always stay true to this principle.

“The challenge is that people are constantly being coerced to give up data and to make information available because of some opportunity that is presented to them,” he said, in an indirect but obvious reference to online social networks like Facebook and online search companies such as Google.

He noted the historical similarities between the early years of the automobile and the early years of the Internet. Drivers in the early 1900s were in the similar situation of using a new product, despite the lack of safety features. Because it offers advantages, despite the threats to their well-being the consumer decides to use the product. As the product evolves, the challenge then becomes how to enhance it’s benefits to consumers while reducing the necessary risks.

“The key insight is that at the end of the day, it isn’t the driver going to auto safety school making the experience safer,” he said. “It is not possible to effectively place this burden on the driver. It has to be the responsibility of the manufacturer. I think that’s the big shift we’re going to see on the Internet privacy front.”

Rotenberg then spoke to the political atmosphere of the issue, saying it’s becoming more common to see people speaking up. He finds it encouraging that young people are participating in the conversation, citing the example of the Facebook group created to protest the largest social network’s new terms of service.

The launch of Google Buzz created similar activity involving privacy issues. After the introduction, Gmail users resisted the violation of privacy rights and there was an enormous pushback on Google.

“The next step in the maturing of the privacy debate is making the connections between recognition and… real action by Congress,” Rotenberg told Rainie. He is a strong advocate of specific privacy legislation and says new laws are necessary in this new environment.

Rotenberg added that it is not right for our representatives in Congress to trade off too much of people’s personal privacy in exchange for national security and government access.

“If you really lose privacy, it will be very hard to recapture,” he said.

Rotenberg said ideas about privacy in the Internet context tend to be universal around the world, and it is interesting how much agreement there is on basic principles. People tend to reflect similar values due to a common understanding of the issue.

A topic that many people are now concerned with is privacy in a mobile environment. Good privacy laws will focus on the collection and use of personal data from mobile devices, he said.

“People should be able to make decisions about what to post online,” Rotenberg said. “That’s what freedom’s about, and that’s a good thing. But when companies start to take that data (and analyze and distribute it)… I’m really uncomfortable with that.”

– By Ashley Dischinger

ADDITIONAL DETAILS FROM THIS EVENT…
Video and more written FutureWeb coverage:
http://bit.ly/imaginingtheinternet
FutureWeb YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/Futureweb2010#p/u
Flickr photos:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/38539612@N02/sets/72157623891937652/

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