Social Media and Privacy Laws

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One of the greatest inventions the world has ever seen is the creation of social media. Social media provides free platforms of virtual communities for individuals to network, reconnect, communicate, share photos and videos, and interact with others all over the world. The perception of social media inclines users to believe that it is genuine and advantageous, yet this free platform comes at a heavy price that most users are unaware they pay for. The primary way for users to foot the bill is through data mining. Users’ personal information is collected and used commercially by social media companies for huge profits. With the innovation of social media and the substantial influx of users’ personal information available online, one would expect that protection and privacy laws would also progress. Unfortunately, most laws are unable to keep up with the quick pace of technology, thus creating predicaments that leave users vulnerable. Therefore, the United States Government should enact laws to protect users’ online information because we cannot trust social media entities to regulate themselves.

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A major dilemma that online users’ come across is that they are responsible for authorizing the sale of their personal information between social media entities and data mining companies; and to make matters worse, users are not entitled to any portion of that sale. Users are unaware that they are approving this deceptive action when they accept the terms and conditions, cookies, or privacy policies from websites that they visit. In most cases, online users will not be able to properly access or utilize a website if they do not accept the terms and conditions, cookies, or privacy policies; this compels many online users to accept the intended liability in order to access particular websites. “Privacy policies contain information that can empower users, by making clear what their rights are and what options they have to better control the use of data about them” (Steinfeld, 2016, para. 4). Therefore, it is almost unimaginable to believe that users will either skim through or ignore privacy policies. Such actions implies that user’s are willing to overlook their privacy in exchange for their convenience. However, studies have shown that online users are very concerned about their online privacy information. Byer’s (2018, para. 4) study mentioned that, “web users overwhelmingly object to how our information is being shared with and used by third-party vendors. No surprise here, a whopping 90 percent of those polled were very concerned about internet privacy.” Despite the evidence, there must be logical reasons to why users overlook reading such important policies.

Social media entities’ terms and conditions and privacy policies often confuse online users for various reasons. Although it is intended for online users such policies are not very user friendly, “almost all privacy policies are long, abstruse, and legalistic adds to the unrealistic burden of checking the respective policies of the websites we visit” (Nissenbaum, 2011, p. 35). Recently I have signed a Last Will and Testament that is similarly composed of lengthy, complex, and legalistic documents, but in order for me to execute my Last Will and Testament, I was required to have my spouse, two witnesses, a notary, and a legal assistant present during the signing. Hence, privacy policies share similar characteristics to that as legal documents but they are handled much more loosely by the government, allowing social media entities to continue to domineer users’ online privacy information.

Social media entities argue that users approve the sale of their privacy information to data mining companies by accepting privacy policies on their websites. Data mining companies’ employ data aggregators to identify and categorize predictive search patterns of users’ online behavioral data and their offline demographic data into desirable information. The desirable information is then collected, categorized, and stored in an online warehouse that is accessible for a fee to companies and organizations looking to solicit more profits from online consumers. According to Zottnick, “currently, US businesses can track, aggregate, and sell private users’ details to third parties as marketing profiles. Popular companies like Facebook and Amazon maintain a robust trade selling user internet profiles to third parties” (2015, p. 196). The profits made from the sale of marketing profiles are legitimate but the profiles that are created by data aggregators are not entirely accurate. Marketing profiles are compiled information from online users’ search histories and some of users’ demographic data. Most marketing profiles are not factual representations of who users are offline, “your second self on the web is likely a distortion of your offline self” (Andrews, 2011b, p. 28). Users’ online information that is collected and used commercially can violate their sense of security, depress them emotionally, and jeopardize certain financial, professional, and personal opportunities for them. Thus, creating a federal law would help to secure a user’s privacy and protect their information from such practices.

Online users have a high level of expectation when it comes to their online privacy. Most users understand that data privacy pertains to the confidentiality in the way their data is assembled, stored, and distributed online but “users often do not know how, when, or in what ways the website may use their personal data” (Zottnick, 2015, p. 198). Millions of users’ actively log on to social media websites daily, privacy concerns derive from the enormous amounts of these users’ data that is collected and processed by these websites. As of now, there are no laws explicitly designed to protect online users’ privacy, Loffler’s (2012, p. 12) study found the following:

Currently in the United States, there is no comprehensive privacy legislation. Instead, the privacy law framework is made up of a patchwork of laws and regulations that address privacy issues for different segments of personal information, consumers, or industries.

Today there are only a handful of blended laws that attempt to protect online users’ information, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act, the Federal Wiretap Act, and the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). Additionally, other acts like the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA), the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), the Gramm-Leach-Bliley (GLB) Act, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) offer privacy protection but only against certain entities.

The FTC Act protects all online consumers from unfair or misleading acts or practices. The ECPA offers blanket protection for electronic communication whereas the Federal Wiretap Act protects users’ conversations, emails, texts, or other messages from being illegally obtained by the government. Unfortunately, all of these laws will not protect a user if they agreed to terms and conditions or privacy policies on a website. According to Claypoole (2014, para. 8), “only certain classes of information are protected under federal law — financial transactions, health care transactions, and information regarding children under the age of 13” FACTA and FCRA essentially protects consumers financial information from fraudsters. The GLB Act enforces financial institutions to protect customer’s information and to disclose any intention to share that information, the GLB Act is an extended version of FACTA and FCRA. HIPAA’s main purpose is to maintain the security and protection of a patient’s health information from being disclosed by health care facilities or providers. However, if a user were to willingly share their health information on a social media website the HIPAA act will not cover them from breach of information, “the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, apply to only specifically defined “covered entities,” which include health care providers and health plans but not social networks” (Andrews, 2011a, p. 34). COPPA protects children under the age of 13 from the manner that websites are able to collect their online data and personal information. The average age of online users are between the ages of 18 and 65, thus the one law that offers privacy protection does not apply to the vast majority of users. “Federal laws are either stuck in the decades-old context in which they originated or only cover niche industrial sectors,” (Zottnick, 2015, p. 261). Thus, there is an immense need to update and reform our current online privacy laws to protect privacy information for users.

Social media entities have been relying on self-governance through the production of their rules and regulations. However, there is still a demand by online users for social media companies to be more candid and transparent. The US Government should not trust social media entities to regulate themselves because the main intention of these companies are in profitability not protection. reframing policies in terms of “opt in” rather than “opt out” and locating moments of choice at times when users might be able to pause and think.

To conclude, I found that there are no definitive laws that are able to keep up with the quick pace of technology. Potentially the US Government could construct a law that will require social media entities to reframe their privacy policies, first to make them easier to follow and uncomplicated and secondly to modify the terms to depict an opt in choice rather than opt out choice. The responsibility of online users’ information are in the hands of the US Government therefore, the US Government must create laws that are specifically designed to safeguard users’ online privacy from social media entities.     

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