Sen. Dick Durbin on Tuesday got to the heart of what troubles many people about Facebook’s voracious harvesting of private data.
“Mr. [Mark] Zuckerberg,” the Illinois Democrat asked during a Senate hearing, “would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?”
Who wants absolutely everybody to know something like that? Without our knowing that they know?
The reaction of Facebook’s chairman and CEO — a middle-grade air of panic, a brief awkward silence and nervous laughter — made it clear he doesn’t dwell as thoughtfully on universal privacy issues as much as he wants us to think he does. We’re guessing he’s distracted by the billions of dollars Facebook earns trading in information it gathers from us, information we might naively have thought was private.
Our right to keep this sort of stuff to ourselves is what privacy is all about. We might be wise as a nation to look at how Europe is handling privacy issues involving apps and social media companies and how we might rewrite our own laws.
On Wednesday, the European Union unveiled updated rules that will include giving people the right to ask a company to delete their data that isn’t necessary to keep and requiring companies to clearly ask for users’ consent before using their data. Those long, opaque user agreements full of legalese won’t count.
The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which goes into effect on May 25, also will require companies to tell users what information they are using and why they’re using it, how long they will store it and who else will be able to see it. Every company in Europe or with European users will be be covered.
On Wednesday, Zuckerberg hedged when Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., asked if Facebook would extend the EU rules to the United States. And Facebook is just one of countless companies that track our online trails for profit.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the company scooped up personal data via Facebook on up to 87 million people during the 2016 presidential election, has forced all of us to think about the pieces of our personal lives that Facebook and other companies glean and share with others.
Durbin’s questions may have started more people thinking about what the United States can do. As he said in closing, “I think that may be what this is all about. Your right to privacy. The limits of your right to privacy. And how much you give away in modern America in the name of, quote, connecting people around the world.”
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