Online Privacy: Terms and Conditions in Five Bullet Points Please

“Time is running out to clear your browsing history before Google’s new privacy policies come into force!” Countless blogs and websites rang the warning bell on Google’s latest evil ploy to gather every single piece of information on individuals using their services. The URL to Google’s web history was eagerly re-tweeted and visited, in what seemed to be a true online civil action against the violation of privacy. But to what extend is the latest online privacy outrage justifiable?

Although the Google web history madness seemed to constitute a moment of communal outrage, I am quite certain that only a relatively small number of the stupendous amount of individuals that use the Google search engine on a daily basis are aware of this matter at all. I am also fairly certain that a substantial amount of the people that re-tweeted and spread the news about Google web history did so simply because of the appeal of the header “Clear your Google Web History before the big privacy change!”

In reality, many of the individuals outraged with practices like these are already unknowingly sharing a vast amount data with online businesses and other electronic entities. Numerous phone applications that upload your contactlist, location services running in the background pinpointing your exact location, Google advertisements that target you based on the content of your emails, and stores and supermarkets that monitor your buying habits because you loyally swipe your discount or member card with every purchase. Obviously some of these practices are malignant, but to a great extend people themselves are accomplices. Individuals share vast amounts of private information on social media platforms like Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram, trusting that these private details will only be shared with their online friends.

But what is this trust based on? Who ever reads the terms and conditions when signing up for an online service? Sure, if the permissions of a Facebook application are shown in five bullet points you do, but how about five pages of legal content? No? That’s what I thought. It’s a no-brainer really: just press the “OK” button. It goes without saying that it shouldn’t be a no-brainer at all, but for some reason people simply cannot be bothered, myself included, I shamefully have to admit. And yet there’s massive outrage about Google web history?

The reason for this seems to be that the information about Google’s web history is handed to us on a platter: a direct link to the Google web history page, which is easily re-tweeted in order to spread the news. The same happens when Facebook is hatching evil plans: we get instructions on how to go into account settings, and tick or untick a box otherwise devilishly hidden away. Without a doubt, it is time for the average internet users to start educating themselves. Stop being ignorant and naive: do you honestly think that extensive web services and social networks are completely free? There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and it’s your information that is being used as a currency.

Unfortunately, although the internet has proven to be a powerful democratising power, a lot of its users are unaware of this property or otherwise unable to utilise it for their own benefit. If only governments would be equally enthusiastic about developing regulation on corporate privacy infringement as they would be about enforcing online anti piracy acts and elaborate nationwide content filters. Governments need to get their priorities straight and educate themselves just as the average internet user needs to, as the online entrepreneurs and corporates are by far the more knowledgable players in this game. However, in a time in which corporates name the tune and politicians have to dance, especially in the United States, it seems highly unlikely that governments will crack down on corporates to stop these privacy infringements.

I’m afraid the outlook for online privacy protection isn’t pretty as long as governments and regulating bodies don’t force companies to sum up their terms and conditions in a maximum of five bullet points.

UPDATE Again, extensive web services and social networks are not free, indeed you are starting to pay more.

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