Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Consumer privacy: Are we pointing the finger in the wrong direction?

These articles have been written by the latest cohort of the Practice Makes UnPerfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices.

By Connie Stewart, Finance Assistant, Permutive

The tech world is being hounded from every angle. Consumers are becoming increasingly hostile towards ‘big tech’ and how it uses their data, and the state is placing growing pressure on tech companies to bend to their will. Are either of these assaults justified?

The central cause of this hostility is consumer privacy on the internet and how much power tech giants should be allowed to have. But there may be a more insidious power at play – the state – which is using the increased fear of the internet to push a more authoritarian agenda.

(Some) consumers rightly worry that their data is being used to track them across the internet through third-party cookies which manifests as increasingly targeted advertising. This mars their ability to autonomously consume on the internet because to act autonomously, people must be able to make choices that are free from coercion, and it is well evidenced that advertising manipulates consumer behaviour. 

Therefore, we can judge that increasingly targeted advertising can manipulate to a greater extent than ‘mass’ advertising. There is an autonomy-preserving reason for consumers to want to limit this, and their fears here are justified. 

For big tech companies, this consumer fear has overwhelmingly become a driving force to change how they process data on the internet. The end of third-party cookies and anti-trust suit’s against Facebook and Google in America spell trouble for the tech industry which has been, according to the UK’s data protection watchdog, “wildly out of control” and lawlessly governed. The advertising space will be forced to shift to a more privacy-centric way of using consumer data. 

The issue here is two-fold, and often has competing aims. Consumers don’t want to be manipulated by advertising but publishers need advertising to stay alive. Advertising is a tool utilised by publishers and social media companies to ensure that they remain profitable, and the more that advertising can target the consumer then the more profitable they can be. 

But have we been ignoring the importance of the press in all this? A free press is of paramount importance to hold governments to account and deliver news to the electorate. This is so often ignored when we discuss privacy on the internet, how can we maintain a free and fair press with increasing privacy regulations and state intervention on the internet?

The importance of education surrounding privacy and informed consent on the internet is especially pertinent for consumers. People don’t know what they should be fearful of. 

According to Freedom House, the fear of technological advance can be a weapon of manipulation against the electorate as a tool to further encroach on the civil liberties that they enjoy when they use the internet.

For example, racist abuse during the Euro 2021 finals is deplorable and social media platforms have a responsibility to stamp out hate speech. We may have a right to freedom of expression, but we also have a duty to not harm others and our freedoms should not come at the expense of others. 

However, Hussein Kesvani argues that during the Euros this racism created a backlash that bolstered support for reducing anonymity online, a measure that could be introduced in the Online Harms Bill. This further increased support for Katie Price’s petition to ‘Make verified ID a requirement for opening a social media account’, which gained 696,985 signatures and was widely shared post-England’s loss to Germany. 

So on the one hand, consumers don’t want to be tracked or identified by brands, but on the other, they also believe it is important that on free websites (funded by advertising) users should be easily identifiable. These frequent contradictions are arising as a result of mixed messages from the media, and fearmongering from every angle.

Privacy as we see it on the web is the inability to be tracked, but ID’s to use certain websites puts the consumer at even greater risk of fraud than third party cookies ever could. According to Kesvani, it also puts those who require anonymity – marginalised people, whistle blowers, sex workers – at greater risk of harm. The BBC state that the online harm’s bill would allow the government to ‘have the power to block access to sites in the UK’, which is a measure that is directly opposed to what the internet allows us to express: our freedom of choice, our freedom of expression and freedom of the press. 

The attack on social media and publishers is a tool being utilised all over the globe. For example, in February Myanmar’s military blocked access to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook after their military coup in an attempt to stop protests.

This is not a standalone event. According to Human Rights Watch, in Belarus in August 2020, the authorities disrupted internet access and online content in response to protests that argued that the election was rigged. Although these may seem like one-off extreme events, Freedom House has found that in 56 countries officials arrested or convicted people for their online speech and governments suspended internet access in at least 20 countries. 

Is this ‘privacy hysteria’ being hijacked to further reduce our internet freedoms? Freedom House states that global internet freedom decreased for the 11th consecutive year. People are already becoming less free online. Although the decline in internet freedoms does not have a direct causal link to regulations that claim to protect privacy, we must be wary of whether countries’ governments are taking too much freedom away from us online. 

We depend upon technology to communicate with others, rally politically and as a source of news; therefore, any reduction in the press’s (including social media) ability to reach us should be a stark warning about how much influence the state has in our lives. Consumers need to understand what is fundamentally important for our privacy on the internet, and ultimately what they need to protect themselves. 

Our freedom is at stake. We, as the consumer, need to push back against the government and tech companies. We need to hold them to account whilst ensuring that we are not manipulated into backing policies that erode online freedom. The industry is already bluntly aware of the pressures on it to become more privacy centric but we must be wary of what powers we are willing to cede to the state when it comes to our online autonomy.