Developing a Framework for Understanding Online Privacy

The development of network technology and new multimedia communication technologies that provide private and public institutions with the means to transmit, share, and sell personal information over open, networked platforms is causing concerns at all levels of society, from policymakers to engineers to everyday users and those just using the technologies for the first time. A comprehensive framework is still needed for understanding the implications of these changing technologies, institutional uses and social behavior for personal privacy.

Currently, the US has no regulations that can protect the transmission and reuse of personal digital data. There is an ongoing debate among influential decision-makers about whether, how, and when to regulate the information technology industry, including, for example, whether legal notification of all parties should be required when personal information is reused by third parties and about how to establish legal guidelines for tracking personal behavior online, with or without opt-in consent. In addition, policymakers are still debating about what institutional and governmental uses of personal data should be legal. The question remains: How can public policymakers help balance the needs of users for privacy and transparency with the tech industry’s need to profit from their products, within the context of the current technical and economic structure of the Internet?

There is, some general agreement that it is necessary to educate the public about issues of privacy, especially the parents of young people—and the youth themselves, who represent a growing portion of digital consumers. During a time when new technological systems are quickly becoming integrated into daily life, consumers’ personal information is being used in ever more innovative ways, and social norms about appropriate communication are changing, it is a matter of some urgency to determine how best to increase public understanding of digital-privacy issues—especially for the most vulnerable in society, who tend to know the least and face the most dramatic potential consequences.

In particular, community-technology-development advocates need a framework for teaching new users of Internet technologies about what privacy is and what they can (and cannot) do to reduce the risk of harm when they engage online. While everyone needs to know what privacy is and how to personally reduce risk—caused by either by one’s personal behavior or by negligent institutional practices, the issue is of particular concern for new entrants to the online world. This population lacks both accurate information about the nature of communication technology and the accumulated practical knowledge that comes from experience and, as well as lacking information about the state of regulatory policy.

Digital competency includes an understanding, or at least awareness, of the social, economic, political, institutional, cultural, and legal realities regarding rights to personal information transmitted online and the reuse and monetization thereof. In other words, an integral part of being digitally competent is understanding how to reduce harm. Harm reduction requires users knowing (1) what they can do to reduce the risk of potential mischief; (2) what they can’t control, given the design of the technology and how it interacts with institutional and social structures; (3) how to tell the difference between personal and systemic negligence; and (4) how to adapt to constantly evolving set of social and institutional practices.

Community educators need a theoretically and empirically sound knowledge base on the issue of privacy. The goal of the Digital Equality project is to empower such educators, especially those providing community technology training, to identify best practices, contextualize those practices with respect to their audience’s needs, and inform new users of the known privacy implications as they introduce them to the multifaceted world of broadband.

There is as yet no broad consensus on the principles for effectively preserving privacy while engaging with new technologies. However, the references and resources below highlight the increased attention to this issue and outline the main points of the debate.

On this References Page, you will find information about:

  1. Regulatory frameworks proposed by the White House and by federal- and state-level government agencies throughout the United States;
  2. Technology-related bills currently under consideration by Congress;
  3. Reforms being proposed by federal and state regulatory agencies in charge of public utilities;
  4. Emerging government commissions and Executive Branch positions charged with making rules about technology and privacy;
  5. Nonprofit organizations and agencies that do research on and/or advocate for consumer rights and education;
  6. Media coverage of issues and events related to online privacy and its effects on individuals and society;
  7. Sample educational recommendations made by governmental and private entities;
  8. Academic papers and books on relevant subjects.

The issue of “privacy” is at the forefront of public and policy discussions about information communication technologies, but scientific study on the subject is in its infancy. While interdisciplinary research on privacy is a growing field, the discourse is generally compartmentalized according to different types of devices (computers vs. mobile phones), different populations (children vs. adults), and different places, with their respective differences in policy and regulatory structure. The current narrow focus on “mobile privacy,” “children’s privacy,” etc. obscure the larger issue: that the social and economic systems through which personal data is used and exchanged affect everyone in some form.

Understanding these issues requires interdisciplinary framework in which communication technology is viewed as a whole social and institutional system that facilitates the transmission of information. To break through the debate and create innovative educational solutions, we need to take account of how the technologies are designed, what social behaviors are associated with those technologies and how they differ across populations, and what effects can be predicted from those social behaviors based on general cognitive and social-anthropological models, in addition to employing existing knowledge about effective educational techniques for different populations. Key components in such an educational program should include not only accurate technical information and explicit discussion of online social norms, but also a comprehensible explanation of how the information-technology sector interacts with the rest of the economy and what policies and regulations are in place (or are not) to protect users.

Developing grounded approaches to teaching privacy will help the most vulnerable address well-known privacy-related problems as they interact online with peers, companies, potential employers, institutions and government agencies. The California Connects team collaborated with computer scientists and educators at the International Computer Science Institute and UC Berkeley to develop a set of foundational principles for online privacy and learning tools to empower California Connects community trainers as well as members of the public to increase their awareness of privacy.

The preliminary results of this collaboration can be explored at teachingprivacy.com.

Teaching Materials

Handout on the Ten Principle for Social-Media Privacy

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