In the grand scheme of things however, email is a calm beast to tame. It has been around for nearly forty years and society is learning it’s place and finding best practices and in general acculturating the new technology. Regulations and court decisions are being made by individuals who are not only expertly informed, either by witnesses, lobbyists or the like, but who are actually using email themselves in their everyday lives.
What is concerning is the migration of not only messages to a digital format, but of everything to a digital format. More specifically, everything from documents to pictures to tax returns are being stored digitally on computers not personally owned, but instead owned by businesses running data centers scattered around the world. This is a part of what is being called, “cloud computing,” and it is the lack of an individual’s personal responsibility that concerns me. An individual is no longer directly responsible for the state of their computer data. Instead it is the responsibility of a business and its employees to maintain the personal data. Individuals simply become users of a data storage service.
As users of these services we have agreed to obfuscated End User License Agreements (EULA’s) that act as a contract between us and the service provider, allowing them to continue operating under the normal legal pretenses that cover contracts between individuals and businesses (read: “As long as you sign this document, we can do whatever the document says,”). However, though many of these EULA’s are benign, some of them, such as Google EULAs and Facebook EULAs, have redefined what an organization can do with personal data and because 99.999% of all users blindly click these EULA (myself included), we are stuck with the service, feeding it information to whatever end the business would like. That is, unless we choose to ditch the service (raise your hand if you can easily ditch Facebook in this day and age).
Where Are We Headed
The trends of the tech industry are thankfully no different than the trends of the other mega industries we have witnessed throughout history. As cultures begin to understand the services more and more, we will begin to better regulate. However, this will not happen without voters actively engaging with the services and understanding how they operate. It takes an educated voter to make an educated decision and therefore as many users as possible should be aware of these trends regarding from personal data.
In my opinion, I see data storage moving towards infrastructure-type regulation, as, “information,” is the latest infrastructural advancement of our society. Just as transportation and utilities are seen as critical for survival, so should data and information security. We should expect the same level, the same quality of service, the same reliability of our data that we do of our heating, electrical and water utilities. Also, just as those utilities are not enforcing how we use the resources we receive, nor should data utilities enforce regulations on how we use the data. Finally, just as the government enforces levels of safety on potentially dangerous activities such as driving and flying, so should they enforce safety in the use of information sharing applications.
The Web and subsequently this whole situation developed because of the laissez-faire attitude towards the Internet and all that could be done with it. I am all for this laissez-faire attitude in proper places such as tinkering and small scale use to promote creativity and entrepreneurship amongst Internet business. However, with certain areas such as personal data protection, levels of government regulation will become more necessary if big corporations such as Google and Facebook continue to tweak obfuscated EULAs to increase their own revenue in a way harmful to their unknowing users. As with all things government, the lawmakers are not going to move in that direction unless the voters make them.
Some helpful information about personal data and your data rights, as well as groups acting to protect them, can be found here at these sites:
- Electronic Frontier Foundation
- Cory Doctorow on EULAs
- 5 Most Laughable Terms of Service on the ‘Net
- The UK Slaps, “Unfair,” label on EULAs
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