We attended Science on Tap last night, where the evening’s talk was entitled, Digital Privacy and Other Civil Liberties and was presented by Professor Neil M. Richards, of Washington University in Saint Louis. In addition to his scholarly writings, Mr. Richards has written for the Guardian, Salon and Slate. He also has a book, Intellectual Privacy: Rethinking Civil Liberties in the Digital Age that formed the basis for the talk. Richards was an excellent speaker and his talk was on a subject that is currently much in the news:
Earlier this year Congress passed and Trump signed into law a decision to overturn new privacy rules for Internet service providers (ISPs) that were passed by the FCC last year. The rules never went into effect. If they had, it would have given consumers control over how ISPs use their data. The rules would have required consent from consumers if sensitive data, like financial or health information, or browsing history, were to be sold or shared. – NPR
The following paragraph is the Science on Tap synopsis of the evening’s talk:
Why is it bad when governments or companies monitor our reading or web-surfing? Intuition tells us such surveillance is bad but—in an age of global terrorism and rapid innovation—it fails to explain why the surveillance poses a problem. Professor Neil Richards offers a new approach to thinking about the ways we’re being watched—one that ensures our ideas and values keep pace with technology. While we might think of privacy and free speech as being in conflict, Richards will explain how the two are often essential to each other. He will explain the importance of “intellectual privacy” protection when we are thinking, reading, and communicating with those we trust; and as we increasingly depend on technologies that can track us, how protection of intellectual privacy has become an imperative.
I’m old enough to remember the days when the Internet was like the Wild West. It used to be that you could ride into any town as the man with no name, but those days are gone. Now, all you have to do is glance at any product or service and ads for that commodity with follow you around wherever you go. Now, when you surf, from behind your screen you are already being watched closely. So, the notion of Internet privacy already seems a thing of the past, but it doesn’t have to be that way and it still isn’t universally like that. To illustrate this point, Richards used the example of Fifty Shades of Grey.
This wildly popular story involving S&M is the stuff of guilty pleasures. It first appeared as a novel and then later as a movie. It is the type of material that you might enjoy, but is also the type that you might not want everyone else to know about it. You could buy the book from an old bricks and mortar bookstore, but the judging eyes of the sales clerk could be enough to dissuade you from that course. You could download it to your Kindle, but your ISP would have a record of that and now can sell that dirty little secret to anyone it wants.
Interestingly, if you choose to stream the movie version, your privacy is still protected. The story behind this loophole dates back to the days of VCRs and video rental stores. Back in the day, a federal judge had ruled that lists of movie rentals were not considered protected information. This ruling incensed a privacy activist, who also happened to patronize the same corner video store as the judge and who was able to convince the store’s owner into giving him the judge’s list of rentals. As it turned-out there was nothing salacious or damaging in the judge’s viewing habits, but this case soon came to the notice of Congress, who quickly decided to outlaw any repetition of this act and has done so to this day. What I see now is an opportunity for history to repeat itself again.