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How can we return privacy control to social media users?

April 7, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
What’s the cost of being constantly connected through social media? A new book, “Terms of Service” examines the erosion of privacy in the digital era. Author Jacob Silverman sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss what data is being tracked, stored and sold.

GWEN IFILL: Now the latest addition to the NewsHour bookshelf, “Terms of Service.” It’s a look at the erosion of privacy in the age of social media.

Jeffrey Brown recently talked to author Jacob Silverman at Busboys and Poets, a restaurant and bookstore chain in and around Washington.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to you.

JACOB SILVERMAN, Author, “Terms of Service”: Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: The case you’re making — and it’s a strong case — we don’t know or we don’t seem to care enough about what we’re giving away in our digital lives.


Well, the same systems that make it so easy to communicate with one another and live these lives where we’re essentially all public figures now also make it very easy to sort of spy on us, to collect personal information, whether you’re companies or governments or other bad actors.

And I think that a lot of people don’t really realize how much is being collected on each and every one of us, that there are big data brokers out there forming dossiers on hundreds of millions of people.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s been a lot of emphasis on government surveillance. Here, you’re really pointing to what we perhaps don’t know as much about, corporate surveillance.


Well, actually, corporations have really led the way turning the Internet into what is really a remarkable surveillance machine. Ever since the introduction of the cookie about 15 years ago, we have sort of shifted paths to make the Internet all about monitoring what users do, so that we can direct ads toward them.

But really that same framework has caused it so that we are only giving away more and more personal information as the years go by, and as these systems become more sophisticated, more intrusive and more sort of intensive in their data-gathering.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what’s an example? What did you find? We all kind of get to that point where we have to push the button, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: Read the terms or push the button. What did you find out that kind of shocked you?

JACOB SILVERMAN: Well, one thing that really troubled me is I learned that Facebook actually — not only do they track of course everything you do on the site, not only what you post, but whose profiles you look at, how often you log on, where you’re logging in from, but they will even track statements that you write into the status bar and then delete.

And they call this self-censorship. And I think this is very revealing of Facebook’s mind-set. They think that if someone is writing something into the status bar and decides not to post it, that that’s a form of self-censorship, that we’re actually sort of denying ourselves some form of expression.

And I think that’s revealing of Facebook’s mind-set, which is that they really want to know everything we’re kind of doing and thinking and our responses to pretty much almost any form of stimuli. And I think that’s really troubling and not really a fair arrangement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so what do you do? When you come to that — the terms of service, right, the language that we’re all supposed to read, and I suspect most of us just push the button and move on.

What do you do?

JACOB SILVERMAN: I often do the same.

I have tried to be a little more careful and start paying more attention to things like app permissions when I install apps on my phone, but really these problems are very difficult for any individual to tackle. And that’s why I often talk about more collective solutions, whether it’s things like regulation or more transparency on behalf of companies of what data are they collecting, how are they using it, who are they selling it to, how long are they storing it for?

These are very basic pieces of information about how these companies operate, and we really don’t know the answers to these questions.

JEFFREY BROWN: People feel like they’re getting something out of this digital life, whether it is convenience, whether it’s information, whether it’s connections to communities. We perhaps understand that we’re giving up something to get that.

JACOB SILVERMAN: There will always be a kind of bargain, I think. But no one has ever said that it has to be so lopsided, I think. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: You think that’s the issue? The balance is out of whack?

JACOB SILVERMAN: Sure. I think there is a real lack of power on behalf of users.

We really don’t know what kind of information we’re giving over or how it’s being used, and we have to accept the data collection regimes and the privacy standards for these companies. It’s either all or nothing. And we really have very little control, and I just would like to see some more control returned to the hands of users.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see a difference in generations, young people who have grown up giving away in a sense more about themselves?

JACOB SILVERMAN: There is sort of a kind of more ease for young people in terms of slipping into these systems and adopting them wholesale.

But I also think young people are very savvy. And they often take steps to protect their privacy and even their identity online, especially if they’re minors, in ways that we might not appreciate. There’s an old technique called white-walling, which a lot of — some young Facebook users do, in which they post messages on each others’ Facebook walls, and then will completely delete every message on their walls after they know it’s been seen.

So there are these sort of savvy methods that some young people have shown. And I think you can even point to something like Snapchat, which had its security issues over the years, but this is an app that really took off with young people, not only because of the more prurient possibilities with it, but because young people also knew that it provided some measure of privacy because their messages wouldn’t be permanently stored.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, some things, individuals can do. The rest, you think requires what you call collective action?


I mean, privacy isn’t just an individual issue. It really involves all of us. A lot of regular sort of John Q. Internet user might be some middle-class person who is very comfortable on Facebook and Twitter giving away a little bit of personal information here and there and isn’t very worried.

But privacy is much more about the collective, about society. I might not be worried about my own privacy, but I should care about the privacy of other people, about people on the margins, the more vulnerable people, people that might not have the time to sort of tend to their online profile and reputation. Those are the people who privacy legislation and various tools are supposed to protect.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection.”

Jacob Silverman, thanks so much.

JACOB SILVERMAN: Thank you very much.