It's not too late to fight for our digital rights

28 November 2017

Experts say it's time to protect digital rights, as a major survey details public attitudes to digital privacy, surveillance, and online freedom of speech.

A hand holding a smartphone. Image: Justin Main/Unsplash

Digital platforms and government must work to protect digital rights. Image: Justin Main/Unsplash

Uber’s admission that it covered up a major data hack affecting 57 million users is the latest example of a mass infringement of digital rights.

As our worlds move ever and ever online, to the increasing benefit of major technology firms such as Uber, Facebook, and Google, the need for a frank and open discussion about our digital rights has become urgent. Government, as a central home to so much of our personal data, must be a part of this mix.

Voicing concerns about technology is not new. As David Brooks noted in the New York Times, “the left is attacking tech companies because they are mammoth corporations; the right is attacking them because they are culturally progressive.” 

If we leave politicized critiques to one side and look at why the public is concerned about their data, we see their worries are often well-founded. Take this account of a former Facebook Operations Manager tasked with addressing its privacy issues, who talks of an organisation that “prioritized data collection from its users over protecting them from abuse”. 

Australians are some of the world’s greatest users of social media and mobile broadband, and our nation is in the top ten globally for internet use. We adapt early to new technologies and our high uptake of smartphones paired with our relative level of wealth means we meet the digital archetype.

At a time when our use of technologies is increasingly redefining aspects of our personal and professional lives, researchers are being compelled to explore urgent questions about the nature of our rights now and into the future.

This means taking a deep look at the role of private, transnational digital platforms in reshaping the way we work, study and conduct business and our interactions with government and each other.

This week, our Digital Rights and Governance project at the University of Sydney released a major report, detailing the attitudes and opinions of 1600 Australians on key rights issues.

We conducted a major survey through Essential Media and held an online focus group discussion about scenarios (much like that of the Uber data breach), and carried out analysis of legal, policy and governance issues.

What we have learned is that Australians have real concerns about digital privacy and how it is impacted by profiling and data analytics. Australians’ opposition or support for government surveillance depends on a complex set of scenarios around justice and anti-terror.

In the workplace, Australians think digital privacy matters just as much. Most of us don’t want our employers looking at our private social media posts, but concerns for such practices breaks down through levels of education. 

High-school educated, blue collar Australians and those over 40 are most concerned about employers accessing their social media posts. This raises questions about how complacent or even complicit some companies may be about the monitoring of social media activity. It also suggests that existing employment law may not adequately protect employee rights to digital privacy.

And we also grapple with wider realities of the digital disruption that gallops apace through our myriad interactions. Real-world inequalities are being writ large in the digital plain, with our online experiences filtered by our age, gender, and social background. 

So, what can and should government do?

For a start, federal legislators could look at adopting recommendations from the Australian Law Reform Commission and Australian Productivity Commission inquiries, address privacy and speech rights breaches, and accept citizens’ view that data centralization through programs such as the creation of a single Digital ID may be a bridge too far.

Major digital platforms can come to the table too, by agreeing to work with government and citizens to better moderate harmful – and malevolent – content.

Personal responsibility will remain important, as digital disruption continues, but Australians will be better placed to adapt behavior if they also have access to better education in privacy, media law, content regulation and online commenting. It is not too late to ensure our digital rights are upheld.

Professor Ariadne Vromen, Professor Kimberlee Weatherall, Dr Fiona Martin and Professor Gerard Goggin are researching digital rights at the University of Sydney. This article was originally published by the ABC

Luke O'Neill

Media and Public Relations Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)

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