The Online Privacy Echo Chamber: Is Anything Really Changing?


Online privacy is the phrase du jour, as consumer awareness grows in tandem with consumer frustration. Just a few years ago, despite consistent news of data breaches and cyber hacks, we had resigned ourselves to the idea that
online privacy was an illusion
, and discussions centered around how to navigate a new economy that did not include privacy. 

Following Cambridge Analytica, the scandal that finally woke the public to the hidden and subtle dangers of a data free-for-all, headlines started to change. While it was clear online privacy did not exist in any meaningful way, there was no longer a resignation to that reality but, instead, a rallying cry to change it.
Today, it’s hard to avoid the discussion of privacy, as near-daily headlines expose massive injustices, hidden agendas and companies of all sizes taken to task for willfully misusing or exposing individuals’ private information. This hyper-focus on privacy has certainly created a sensitivity for consumers, while companies promise privacy solutions and lawmakers scramble to try to regulate technology against the increasing pace of innovation. So what is working and what is not? Is privacy simply the latest bandwagon to jump on, or is real reform being made? 
The Industry Echo Chamber 
Everyone from Apple to Google and, yes, even Facebook, have joined in on the privacy conversation. This renewed commitment to privacy is murky at best. Despite Apple’s well-touted privacy initiatives, the iPhone continues to share tracking data with any number of apps, while the company itself has been opposed to state privacy laws and so far reticent to throw their support behind a federal law. Google made its latest I/O conference all about privacy, yet experts were quick to point out the tech giant deftly sidestepped any meaningful changes that would affect its ad-driven business model. Mark Zuckerberg insists the future of Facebook is privacy, even while being slapped with a $5 billion fine and threatened with an antitrust probe for misusing user data.

As a consumer, it’s certainly hard to know who to trust and how to navigate a very tricky privacy environment. To achieve even a modicum of control over their own data, consumers are expected to download a different web browser, use a unique search engine, change their messaging platform, alter their DNS address and invest in everything from a separate password keeper to a tool to mask their email address and a virtual credit card to hide their financials. 
Even if consumers dutifully attempted these various ways to protect their own information online, the unfortunate reality is they still aren’t really private. It’s clear that while companies see the benefit of privacy as a PR tactic, they are doing little to make substantive changes. 

Lawmakers Weigh In
In the Wild West of the internet, regulation has proven tricky. Consumers want and deserve protection, but they are reticent to change the relatively free and unrestricted online environment. Companies, on the other hand, need to make a profit. If customers aren’t paying to use their services, they must find another way to do so. From its inception, the online experience has capitalized on advertising as a way to spare the consumer’s pocket while ensuring companies can still make money. In the simplest of explanations, we can argue that this is where our personal privacy went off the rails.
As politicians try to put Pandora’s box back together again, the question remains whether it’s possible. General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the first-of-its-kind privacy legislation spearheaded by the European Union, is now well over a year old. Reviews of its success to date are mixed, but it’s clear that companies are pushing the boundaries of the law as far as they can, and fines have proven to be minor deterrents. In the United States, states are taking their own privacy stance, with California’s Consumer Privacy Act in the spotlight for its strict regulations that go into effect in 2020. Yet, some experts are pushing for stronger regulation at the federal level, arguing states don’t have enough authority to change privacy on a broad scale.
Here again, we see that hype is superseding reality. As companies find creative ways to skirt laws, and rigid arbitration laws in the United States skew in favor of big corporations, it’s clear privacy infringement and penalties will be hard to enforce.
Can We Shape Our Own Privacy Destiny?
It’s certainly nice to hope the companies we do business with, or the politicians who represent us, have our best interests at heart. The truth, however, is far more complex, as competing interests sometimes leave the consumer out in the cold.
The good news is, we’re all waking up to the realization that we can and should be doing more to take privacy into our own hands. A critical sea change is to recognize that not only is complete online privacy achievable but also that we as individuals can have absolute control over when and how we choose to remain private. To achieve a new private economy will require a more ubiquitous privacy solution, one that is device agnostic and works across operating systems and platforms. Users can’t fully control their privacy if every device requires a different system. Until privacy is a choice for everyone, anywhere and at any time, we will never truly be free online.
Privacy isn’t about building impenetrable walls; it’s about putting control in the hands of the individual — to choose how, what and when they share information online and to be afforded absolute transparency into who has access to that information. A privacy-first online environment will require the combined efforts of lawmakers imposing strict rules, companies taking a proactive position and individuals demanding more control to see real change. 
Privacy must move beyond the hype echo chamber and into true reform in order to prove that the internet can still be an amazing revenue source — without compromising the very consumers who drive it.



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