EDITORIAL: The mean streets of the online world [The Virginian-Pilot :: ]
(Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) July 13--Navigating the World Wide Web has become like walking on a city street: The act itself seems to carry little expectation of privacy.
Or actual privacy.
There are significant differences in what people reveal when walking or being on the Internet, and those differences demand a greater effort to balance individual rights, personal and public safety, business interests and the constitutional principles that form the bedrock of American life.
A steady stream of reports has raised awareness about how vulnerable -- and valuable -- online users are, and how far some companies and governments are willing to go to cash in.
In the year since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden first disclosed the extent of the feds' online snooping, there's been a rush of details on the trampling of privacy and Fourth Amendment rights.
Newly released documents showed continuous covert monitoring of email addresses belonging to foreign nationals and American citizens. It joins a list of revelations about data mining and furtive access, along with authorities' creation of huge databases of our comings and goings.
Meantime, private companies are pushing through conventional social and business norms, whether by manipulating transmission speeds -- the concept driving net neutrality rules -- or surreptitiously affecting users' moods and attitudes, as Facebook recently acknowledged.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner has asked the Federal Trade Commission to evaluate Facebook's study of the effects of rigging users' news feeds, and whether more regulatory oversight is necessary.
It's a question that hardly needs to be asked, except that the absence of regulation frees giant companies to take unthinkable liberties with their users' emotional lives.
The social network fiddled with a small fraction of its members' feeds to see how they responded to an increase in negative news, just another of the company's ethically suspect maneuvers.
The common thread through all this is the collision of rapid technological change, civil liberties defined in a different era, and the natural tendencies of government and business.
The absence of public policies or laws tilts power toward institutions that crave it, that consolidate it, rather than protecting the people making their way from one point to another.
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