Emerging Issues

Internet Access and Privacy: New Civil Rights Issues?

As web dependence grows, online privacy proves difficult to protect

Photo courtesy of Maureen McCarty

By Jordan Magaziner

With the reach and power of the Internet continuing to grow, should online privacy and access to the Internet be considered civil rights? Jordan Magaziner takes a closer look at these emerging issues. Let us know what you think in the comment field below.

Facebook Privacy Concerns

Many people protect their physical possessions, but protecting online information is just as important. Using search engines or social networks provides others with personal information that people may not realize or may not want publicized.

This issue was highlighted in April 2010 when Facebook, the popular social networking site, announced new changes to the site. Under the new policies, users profile photos, as well as websites they “like” and “dislike,” can show up on their friends’ news feeds.

Privacy advocates, joined by government officials and some Facebook users, criticized the changes. Five senators, including Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Mark Begich (D-Ak.), Al Franken (D-Mn.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote an open letter Facebook advising it to quickly move toward making user information more private. The senators warned that if privacy concerns aren’t addressed, the Federal Trade Commission may get involved.

Representatives of both the senators and Facebook met earlier this week. After the meeting, Andrew Noyes, a Facebook spokesperson, told CNN his company’s goal is to personalize users Internet experience, however, “we recognize that some users have concerns and we discussed ways to address them.”

Many Unknowingly Give Up ‘Identifying Data’

Facebook and other social networking sites are just one way that Internet users can unknowingly put their personal information at risk.

In a March 2010 New York Times article, reporter Steve Lohr wrote that although many would never give personal information to a stranger on the street, “people often dole out all kinds of personal information on the Internet that allows such identifying data to be deduced.”

American University Associate Professor John Watson, an expert in journalism ethics and law, said in an e-mail that the term “online privacy” refers to “people’s reasonable expectation that the materials they place online will only be accessed by the people they intend to have access.”

This expectation, he wrote, is unreasonable because online communication does not exist in merely one place.

“It is questionable whether anything ever put online has ever been truly destroyed,” Watson wrote. “Privacy is a matter of maintaining human dignity. The same can be said of an online communication; an intrusion upon it can deprive a person of some measure of dignity. There are federal laws protecting this aspect of dignity and these arguably are civil rights laws.”

The Digital Divide, a Defined Barrier

While some privacy advocates worry about too much exposure on the Internet, others worry about too little.

The “digital divide”—the phenomenon created between those with Internet access and those without—was demonstrated in the 2009 Pew Internet & American Life Project’s broadband study.

Nearly seventy percent of home broadband users said that a home connection is “very important” or “somewhat important” for finding out what is happening in their community, and 58 percent said such a connection is very or somewhat important for sharing their views with others about important issues.

Nonusers, when asked why they do not have the Internet or home broadband access, referenced factors like availability. One-third of dial-up users said price is a barrier.

John Doolittle, Associate Professor in American University’s School of Communication, said in a phone interview that providing Internet access to the public is similar to the idea behind providing television as an educational public resource.

The Internet opens many doors, like education, communication, politics, research, and provides conveniences such as checking tomorrow’s weather. But the question of access—how to protect privacy online, and whether access to the Internet is a luxury or a civil right—will deepen as usage and dependence on the web continues to grow.

“I think it might be a piece of the ‘American pie’ that people should expect and demand,” Doolittle said.

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