2 min read

Privacy as a Human Right

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"First, it is important to note that no one is obliged to sign up for Facebook. The decision to use our family of apps is entirely voluntary and personal. A person’s choice to use Facebook’s services, and the way we collect, receive or use data -- all clearly disclosed and acknowledged by users -- cannot meaningfully be likened to the involuntary (and often unlawful) government.”
- Amnesty International, Surveillance Giants, Letter from Facebook

At first blush, Facebook’s statement above sounds clear and reasonable: that users who sign up to join its platform have done so voluntarily and knowingly. Nobody was coerced to do so. Users knowingly agree to Facebook’s data policy before voluntarily signing up to join the platform for free. Thus, Facebook argues that it is wrong to label its business model as surveillance capitalism. What it is doing is voluntary, transparent and legitimate.

Certainly, when I think about the time I joined Facebook back in 2008, I signed up excitedly, and, yes, voluntarily because I was enthused to suddenly have the chance to participate in online reunions with old classmates and faraway relatives. But I did not read Facebook’s data policy. I looked at it quickly and decided that it was too long and incomprehensible. Besides, it’s not like I could negotiate the policy’s terms and conditions. The data policy was your garden-variety “take-it-or-leave-it” clickwrap agreement and so I quickly clicked and joined the fun. Looking back, my agreement to Facebook’s data policy was not a purely voluntary decision because I actually had not much choice. I had to give my consent if I wanted to participate in the dynamic and vast global social community that is Facebook.

Helen Nissenbaum also questions whether signing up to join social platforms like Facebook is actually done voluntarily. Especially since the costs for not joining are huge. She noted:

“A deeper ethical question is whether individuals indeed freely choose to transact...While it may seem that individuals freely choose to pay the informational price, the price of not engaging socially, commercially and financially may in fact be exacting enough to call into question how freely these choices are made.”
- Nissenbaum,A Contextual Approach To Privacy Online

More forcefully, Amnesty International believes that users who join Facebook do so under coercion. They are forced to give up their right to privacy in order to exercise their rights to free expression and association. It declared:

“But despite the real value of the services they provide, Google and Facebook’s platforms come at a systemic cost. The companies’ surveillance-based business model forces people to make a Faustian bargain, whereby they are only able to enjoy their human rights online by submitting to a system predicated on human rights abuse.”
- Amnesty International, Surveillance Giants

Thus, in my mind, this issue is more complex than Facebook claims it to be. Meanwhile, I have quit Facebook for over a year now because I am no longer willing to pay the price of giving up my privacy. And yes, in this case, I did so voluntarily.

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