This op-ed was originally published in Townhall on January 5, 2023.
Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter has led to the publication of the company’s corporate files discussing content moderation decisions. Dubbed the “Twitter Files,” these documents have been released on Twitter in installments. The ninth installment of the Twitter Files focuses on exposing the cozy relationship between the tech giant and the FBI.
The Files show how the federal government’s influence heavily impacted content moderation policies, but they reveal more than corporate decision making. They shed light on issues related to digital economic life, specifically how consumer choice in the digital sphere is more illusory than the public believes. Instead of an open marketplace of ideas, online information is heavily curated based on pressure from government actors.
This reality has drastic implications because the power of digital infrastructure built in the 21st century transcends economic industries and is constructed from personal information collected from millions of private transactions over decades.
While this has led to many incredible advancements benefiting consumers, the Twitter Files show the dark side of modern technological innovation. In a world where digital life is controlled by the joint decisions of corporate and government actions, freedom has functionally died.
In many ways the Twitter Files confirmed what most Americans already knew. The government and corporations worked together to control information available to the public by censoring content the government did not approve. One need only observe the complete surveillance system of China to understand the nature of how freedom erodes under a system governed by the marriage of corporate and government systems.
To keep liberty alive, consumers must learn to place economic value on the freedom that comes from living without surveillance. Consumers must stop trading privacy for convenience.
The privacy problem
The tension between convenience and individual autonomy is not new. Technology and privacy have always had a contentious relationship. At the turn of the 19th Century the invention of the photograph gave birth to the first privacy advocates. In 1890, Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren penned the now infamous law review article “The Right to Privacy.” Both argued the law must adapt to protect privacy interests lest mechanical devices ensure “what is whispered in the closet … be proclaimed from the house-tops.”
How times have changed. What is whispered in the closet is now captured by Alexa, Siri, Cortana, Bixby — pick your poison. As the lines between digital and physical spaces continue to blur, the tension between technological innovation and privacy will deepen. Consumers must reevaluate the value placed on privacy.
The privacy problem exists because information created in the private marketplace does not stay there. Technological advancements make it easier for individuals to eliminate minor, practical problems. We no longer wrestle with physical maps because the internet solved that problem. However, the ability to avoid near monitoring by corporate or government actors is almost impossible.
However, the heart of this problem, i.e. the government’s coopting of private data, is not new. Geofence warrants are routinely used to request dragnet searches of technology company databases. These warrants are broad, requesting all user data within a set geographic location to a crime. This investigative technique assists law enforcement in identifying suspects, but also means individuals can be implicated in criminal activity based on location alone.
In 2018, the Supreme Court addressed the geolocation issue, handing down a ruling in Carpenter v. United States barring police from obtaining this data without a warrant because individuals in modern America cannot avoid having their location tracked.
This ruling shows privacy harms are not hypothetical. Individuals can no longer move freely without being digitally tracked. This is not a trivial loss of autonomy. Indeed, our collective blindness to the profound nature of our loss underscores the naivete of the Western mind. Only the modern pampered Western mind would conceive of threats to freedom as something that comes from an external, foreign source.
Corporate incentives align with government, not the public
Major technology companies are aware of the cost individuals bear when valuing their privacy. In modern times, valuing privacy means forfeiting the convenience of a normal life. Decades of consumer behavior has shown corporate entities privacy has no economic value. Individual devaluation of digital privacy signals to companies that privacy violations will go unpunished. Firms use this knowledge when determining how to maximize profits, and because there is no incentive for corporations to value privacy, they don’t.
Companies notice consumers treat physical and digital privacy differently and tolerate behavior in the digital realm that would be viewed as deeply disturbing if it occurred physically. No one would tolerate being perpetually physically followed. Yet when the same behavior is transformed to the digital realm, no one bats an eye. There are other examples, such as salesmen who approach our doors are viewed as a nuisance, while targeted advertisers are seen as helpful.
The databases of human behavior generated online grow by the day. Geolocation data is held by Google, T-Mobile, Verizon, and other mobile carriers. Meta, Twitter, and TikTok collect troves of data from email address and phone numbers to private messages, political beliefs, religious affiliation, and social ties. This is merely a sampling of the thousands of data points collected digitally.
These huge, centralized databases become targets for bad faith actors. Selling data on the black market makes hackers and thieves a lot of money. This is why major companies routinely face data breaches. Additionally, private firms and individuals are not the only ones interested in leveraging the power of data. Governments also want to use data to their advantage. The same mechanism used for geofence warrants can be applied to other digital information. Indeed, the first lawsuit challenging the use of a warrant to obtain Google search history was filed this year.
Trading privacy for convenience is not always bad, but we have grossly underappreciated the danger of handing over control of personal information.
How do we resolve the tension between technology and privacy?
The decision lies in the hands of individuals. Our current privacy predicament was the product of millions of individual choices; the road out will be similar. Although there is no formula for people to follow when determining how much privacy each person needs or desires, what’s indisputable is the convenience of technology comes at the price of privacy and autonomy. And, just as freedom can be traded for safety, privacy may be exchanged for convenience.
In the digital era, we must remember the spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s sage words of caution: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” So, it is with Privacy and Convenience. Americans need to wake up and start prioritizing their essential liberty over the convenience afforded by a host of data-grabbing apps.