Internet activists flexed some impressive muscle over the last couple of weeks in working to block Congress from enacting the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA), which would have put legal restraints and restrictions on search engines, advertising networks, internet service providers, and other online sites and services as a means of stemming the unauthorized trade of copyrighted works and other forms of intellectual property. The activists were joined in the cause by many large internet companies, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter. The motivations of the corporations and the activists overlapped to some degree, but there were also important differences. The activists were fighting for the cause of freedom; they worried that the bill would impede the flow of information online, to the detriment of people using the net. The corporations had business interests to protect. They feared a wave of litigation and other operational and legal headaches, as well as the possible rise of obstacles to the development of new products and services.
It will be interesting to watch how internet activists will deploy their considerable power in the future, and it will be particularly interesting to watch how much muscle they’ll flex when their opponents on an issue are the same corporations that joined them in the fight against SOPA. We may actually get a good idea of how the “internet spring” will progress very soon – tomorrow, in fact. That’s when, according to reports, the European Commission will unveil a sweeping proposal to defend people’s right and ability to control the personal information that’s collected about them online by internet businesses, advertising syndicates, and media companies. The proposed law, which if approved would take the place of the current hodgepodge of national privacy regulations throughout the EU, would, according to the BBC, require that companies obtain people’s consent before collecting information about them, notify people when they collect data on them and explain how the data will be used and stored, allow people to easily review the data held about them, and allow people to transfer personal data from one company to another. The law also includes what’s being called a “right to be forgotten,” which means that companies would have to delete personal information they store when people request it. Companies would also have to divulge any breaches or losses of personal data within 24 hours.
Data-hungry companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have yet to weigh in on the proposal, but if history is a guide they are likely to oppose it. Their opposition will be motivated by some of the same business concerns they had about SOPA: the threat of litigation and operational headaches, and the restriction of some types of innovation, in this case ones that require the unfettered use and exchange of personal data for commercial gain. No doubt, they’ll also whine about how difficult it will be, technically, to obey the law. These are companies that can build a car that can drive itself, but making data collection transparent and giving people tools to control it – well, gee, that’s really hard.
Internet executives like Mark Zuckerberg like to argue that “privacy” is an outdated concern. But when people talk about privacy, what they’re really talking about is freedom: the freedom to be in charge of their own information. Guaranteeing the freedom of information online entails not only questions of flow but also questions of control. Frankly, it sometimes seems like Silicon Valley is more interested in the freedom of data than in the freedom of people.
So will internet activists rise up again, this time to protect people’s freedom to control their information online? If Facebook and Twitter don’t get behind individual rights in this case, will activists organize boycotts of their services as they boycotted those of companies that supported SOPA? Will the Google employees who spoke out eloquently against SOPA on their personal blogs and through social network accounts speak out with equal eloquence in support of the protection of personal privacy? Will Wikipedia go dark for another day? When it comes to shaping the future of the Net, fights about privacy are at least as important as fights about piracy.