In the political climate of today that might most neutrally be described as… difficult… it can be helpful to refer back to a practical definition of democracy supplied by Merriam-Webster: “an organization or situation in which everyone is treated equally and has equal rights.” For the experts at Seattle’s July 14 Town Hall on “How Technology Impacts Civil Liberties,” that type of democratic Internet was surely the goal.
The event featured local and national experts on the relationship between technology and data collection, and the related laws and policies that affect our rights and daily lives. The speakers brought a wide variety of experience from both the current and past positions they have held: Nuala O’Conner, president of the Center for Democracy & Technology; Ryan Calo, faculty director of the University of Washington’s Tech Policy Lab; Racquel Russell, Director of Government Relations and Public Affairs for Zillow; and moderator, Jenny Durkan, former United States Attorney and Quinn Emanuel’s Global Chair of the Cyber Law and Privacy Group.
Your data and you
The evening began with a warning delivered in the official welcome by Ira Rubinstein, CDT Board of Directors, Research Fellow and Adjunct Professor at NYU School of Law. Rubinstein chose to deliver a timely caution about voter privacy and dossiers containing thousands of data points on voters, and how information is being used to target voters without their knowledge to sway them in different ways. He called for “genuine civic discourse,” asking the question that would be a theme throughout the evening: “How does this affect democracy?”
The theme was quickly taken up by the panelists and their enthusiastic moderator. They frequently centered on a theme of “my data, my self” as being a fundamental right of democracy. Privacy versus security was a topic right off the bat, beginning with, “are consumers aware of how much information is being collected on them?”
Though the opinions of the panelists were as varied as individual consumer behavior, they were all concerned with whether consumers truly understand the ramifications of giving up data. “There’s an asymmetry that matters,” said Calo. “It’s about the fact that a company knows a huge amount about you, and you can’t possibly know that much about them. That asymmetry matters.”
Other unsettling ramifications were tied to the tension between the data collected by private industries and the federal government on all of us. Because private industries must adhere to industry standards set by the government and has obvious motives (“they just want to make money”), the panelists were ultimately less concerned about corporations gathering data than the federal government, which has “mixed incentives.”
“The government can put you in jail and deprive you of rights and liberty,” said O’Conner. Calo picked up on the theme, saying that it holds the controversial power to enforce the death penalty, which means “the government has a monopoly on violence.” He pointed out that while we may sometimes feel as though Facebook is taking over our lives, “Facebook can’t actually kill us.”
And yet, even with the recent massive breach of government data, Russell pointed out that our society continues to choose ease and efficiency in exchange for privacy. O’Conner expanded on the idea: “There’s a creeping intrusion about the idea that information should be easily accessible by government, but have we gone too far?”
The importance of anonymity
Searching for alternate government models led to the discussion of the European Union and privacy compared to the U.S. and freedom of speech. “Your right to disappear is my right to talk about you,” said Calo, and then reminded us of the realities of the Wayback Machine. Run by the Internet Archive, the Wayback Machine preserves 1 billion web captures per week, making it virtually impossible for anything online—good or bad—to actually disappear. Regulating these constant changes challenges the law to keep up. Many wondered if it could, but Calo pointed out that the law does a good job of setting standards. “You can’t be deceptive – that’s a standard,” he said.
The disturbing questions about anonymity led to the today’s reality of always leaving behind a digital trace. “Privacy is a fundamental part of who we are,” said Durkan, and no one disagreed. Society, however, demands open access to public information. “It’s very hard to hide things these days because we’re an open society and you can find so much,” Durkan said.
From her experience as a U.S. Attorney General, she raised several ethical challenges, including the ease with which terrorists can find building and security plans, or how easy it can be to stalk people online. Calo pointed out the legality between what he calls the “subjective chill” and the “objective chill.” From the irritation of being followed by digital ads to actually being surveilled by the NSA, “it’s the difference between feeling like you’re being surveilled and actually being surveilled,” he said. “People aren’t good at weighing the trade-off.”
Where ethics and tech intersect
Each of these difficult and massive questions touched on ethics as well as equality. An intriguing question from the audience raised the point of whether the designers of the user experience should be considering ethics of use. Russell suggested that the designer “doesn’t have to be the one to think about ethics but someone at the company absolutely does.” With each new product comes usability testing, and the oft-forgotten challenge of anticipating and testing for unexpected uses. “Tech is usually vetted against the mainstream,” said Calo, which can easily lead to unforeseen problems, such as the higher rates of nausea among women in virtual reality experiences like Oculus Rift. “Diversity in the pipeline will lead to better products,” O’Conner assured us.
So, how can the average person possibly navigate the problems that arise when Byzantine bureaucracy meets 21st century technology? The panelists advocated embracing diversity, digital literacy and education. These tactics – or rights, if you will – should lead society to better understand the ramifications of choices such as long-term consequences of online behavior, offering up data, and surrendering levels of privacy. With better education, perhaps future generations will better understand the ramifications and, says Russell, they may decide those ramifications are things they can actually live with.
O’Conner left us with a sense of historical perspective, citing Jeff Bezos’s phrase that we are still in “Day One” of the Internet: “We just have to do the hard work now of getting things right to explore what else is out there.”
Users of the Internet can shape the future of technology’s impact on civil liberties by checking out the Center for Democracy & Technology, read about privacy policies, and consider the perspectives presented at this Town Hall dialogue the next time you sign a petition, vote or simply buy a new iPhone and configure your privacy settings.