Elon University

Special Session: Online Privacy Expert Marc Rotenberg Shares His Foresight

An interview about the future of the Internet hosted by Lee Rainie, Pew Internet

Brief description: Marc Rotenberg executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center discusses the future of the Web in an interview session led by Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.

Details of the session

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, led a final session at FutureWeb in which he discussed privacy issues with Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). It was the sixth and final interview in a series of six Rainie hosted at the three-day FutureWeb conference.

Rotenberg is arguably the best-known privacy advocate in the world and he and his team work to bring to light the emerging civil liberties issues tied to our uses of technology. “Mark is my number-one teacher on these issues,” Rainie said in his introduction. “He has schooled us (at Pew) both directly and indirectly, and his work has stood up remarkably and robustly as this environment has changed.”

In a wide-ranging hour-long discussion, Rotenberg said he believes privacy protections for users of online social networks and the mobile Internet will be passed by Congress – it’s only a matter of time. He pointed out that many other countries – especially in Europe – already have such consumer-protection regulations in place.

Rotenberg addressed the privacy paradox, where on one level Americans tend to place value in the ability to control identity, but at the same time they don’t always stay true to this principle when they are offered the option to share in a social online setting.

“The challenge is that people are constantly being coerced to give up data and to make information available because of some opportunity that is presented to them,” he said, in indirect but obvious reference to online social networks including today’s most popular such meeting place – Facebook – and online search companies such as Google.

He noted the historical similarities between the early years of the automobile and the early years of the Internet. Drivers in the early 1900s were in the similar situation of flocking to use a new product despite its dangerous lack of safety features. Because this product offers advantages, despite the threats to well-being the consumer decides to use the product. As the product evolves, the challenge then becomes how to enhance it’s benefits to consumers while reducing the necessary risks.

“The key insight is that at the end of the day, it isn’t the driver going to auto safety school making the experience safer,” he said. “It is not possible to effectively place this burden on the driver. It has to be the responsibility of the manufacturer. I think that’s the big shift we’re going to see on the Internet privacy front.”

Rotenberg then spoke to the political atmosphere of the issue, saying it’s becoming more common to see people speaking up. He finds it encouraging that young people are participating in the conversation, citing the example of the Facebook group created to protest the largest social network’s new terms of service.

The launch of Google Buzz created similar activity involving privacy issues. After the introduction, Gmail users resisted the violation of privacy rights and there was an enormous pushback on Google.

“The next step in the maturing of the privacy debate is making the connections between recognition and… real action by Congress,” Rotenberg told Rainie. He is a strong advocate of specific privacy legislation and says new laws are necessary in this new environment.

Rotenberg added that it is not right for our representatives in Congress to  trade off too much of people’s personal privacy in exchange for national security and government access.

“If you really lose privacy, it will be very hard to recapture,” he said.

Rotenberg said ideas about privacy in the Internet context tend to be universal around the world, and it is interesting how much agreement there is on basic principles. People tend to reflect similar values due to a common understanding of the issue. He hinted at the opportunity for global agreement on privacy policies for the global Internet.

A topic that many people are now concerned with is privacy in a mobile environment. Good privacy laws will focus on regulating the collection and use of personal data from mobile devices as well, he said.

“People should be able to make decisions about what to post online,” Rotenberg said. “That’s what freedom’s about, and that’s a good thing. But when companies start to take that data (and analyze and distribute it)… I’m really uncomfortable with that.”

– By Ashley Dischinger, Imagining the Internet

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