"By clicking Register, you agree with the website's Terms and Conditions."
Hands up if you recognize this one.
There was once a time when Terms and Conditions statements were short(ish) and linguistically accessible across a range of ages -- meaning that one did not have to be an IP attorney to understand the underlying meaning of a typical sentence.
Those days are long gone, and no one is in any doubt why: As technology has grown more sophisticated -- as the use of websites has evolved from brand recognition to data collection -- the rights we, as users, relinquish have grown exponentially with every new membership, account, or registration. Not only are our profile pictures saved to a third-party database, our likes and preferences shared with third-party vendors, and our browsing activity sold to e-commerce parties, but most users have no idea that this is even happening.
We have lost a vast degree of control over our own online presence, and if we are among the 94% (i.e., in my own data of college student users), we don't read past the first three words in the standard Terms and Conditions statement.
We have no idea what we're giving up.
What if I were to tell you that your picture can, by all means, be used by advertising agencies worldwide to market anything they choose? Or what if you were to know that when you search for signs of pregnancy on a medical website, Amazon, Google, and other third parties have every ability to shift the ads placed along righthand margins to show baby bottles, strollers, and Planned Parenthood clinics nearby?
To make matters worse, there has been a sure but subtle shift in recent years whereby users, while registering for a generic online account, are rarely directed to a webpage designed specifically to communicate Terms and Conditions statements to new members. Instead, a single sentence -- often in small, gray font to elude notice -- reads, "By clicking Register, you agree with the website's Terms and Conditions."
And if you do notice and do not agree -- if you aren't okay with the exchange of your information for money or ad revenue -- you cannot register.
It may seem that few people are paying attention to these shifts, but clearly someone is: Europe.
In recent years, European organizations have altered lay views of American tech giants such as Apple, Facebook, and Google to be "portrayed as tax cheats, copyright infringers and privacy violators, their size and power viewed with suspicion and growing concern" (Serenelli, 2014). The German economics minister recently stated that "either we defend our freedom and change our policies, or we become digitally hypnotized subjects of a digital rulership ... of Internet monopolists" (Gabriel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), and his words are closely echoed by activists and politicians in France, the Netherlands, and many other EU nations.
In short, Europe holds concepts of privacy in highest regard. Whereas American lawyers state that any agreement for data usage in a multi-hundred-paged document of legal text is still an agreement regardless, European laws are increasingly more likely to take the side of the user, protecting privacy and reputation with dogged determination.
A recent movement, Europe Versus Facebook, arose when privacy activists discovered that Facebook and Google had given user information to the NSA, a strictly U.S.-based agency. Although the U.S. government claims every right to observe its citizens through even search engines and social networking sites, citizens of the EU certainly lay beyond this purview.
The question that might logically follow would, therefore, concern cultural differences in the understanding of "privacy" in the digital age. To quote Charles Ess in Digital Media Ethics:
In the U.S. context and tradition [...] what we want protected in an information age is precisely our information -- information that, in digital form, is that much easier to access, copy, and distribute. (2014, p. 59)
However, even within Western societies there are stark contrasts with American views of privacy:
In Norwegian and Danish, for example, there is no direct counterpart to the English term "privacy." Rather, what is at the heart of "privacy" discussions in these languages and cultures is privatlivet -- "private life" -- where such private life encompasses not simply the interests and pursuits of a solitary individual: in addition, privatlivet is understood to involve one's intimsfære, an "intimate sphere" of close friendships and relationships. (pp. 59-60)
This, therefore, is only one of countless examples of the distinction between U.S. and other Western concepts of privacy online. In Germany, for example, privacy is considered an instrumental good insofar as it serves to protect "the freedom to express one's opinion, the right of personality (Persönlichkeitsrecht), and the freedom to express one's will" (p. 63). To summarize,
So it is, then, that among the guidelines issued by the National Committees for Research Ethics in Norway is "The obligation to respect individuals' privacy and close relationships" -- i.e., not simply an individual privacy (NESH, 2006).
For the cultural psychologists among us, this may sound strikingly familiar: What is described here is a sense of self that is relational, rather than purely individualistic. Buddhist, Confucian, and even ubuntu conceptualizations of the self are intimately wound around the relationships an individual holds with others, be they family, friends, acquaintances, or superiors. As such, when information about the "self" is made known among third parties or foreign governments, the feeling of intrusion becomes less about oneself, and more about the community one holds so dear. (It is worthy of note that although European countries are generally high in individualism, they are strikingly lower than the United States and also place heavy emphasis on the family. Should information be shared with third parties that might negatively impact the family, such a situation would be construed as an invasion of privacy much deeper than selling Instagram photos to an Indian marketing firm.)
It is perfectly within our rights to hope that conceptions of privacy in a world so heavily dependent upon the Internet will more heavily honor the user rather than firm. The EU is certainly not the first, nor will it be the last, to draw attention to this hope -- and should more individuals support these ideals of data privacy, even "tech giants" must listen.