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Is the law too slow for Google?

"The Internet is impossible to regulate."

Is someone watching, does your data get collected and are you being profiled?

According to Dr Claudio Bozzi, lecturer at Deakin Law School, this is the reality of today’s online world.

‘The value of Internet businesses and the bulk of the Internet economy is based on advertising and marketing. Internet traffic is just data waiting to be collected by the companies online. And they’re very good at it,’ he says.

Websites like Facebook, Twitter, DropBox and of course Google, offer a service in exchange for your information. But in this exchange something might be encroached on – your privacy.

As Dr Bozzi explains, ‘you cannot assume that you have privacy online…data used to be a by-product of business transactions, now it is big business. Your data is collected to create a profile on you. And the engine that uses that data is smart. In a highly targeted way, it’s trying not to waste time by making sure the ads come to the right person.’

‘Sometimes it’s done by using personal information; at other times it profiles you based on seemingly relevant impersonal information. Amazon, for example, will say, you are like other people who bought this book, and they liked the following.

In other words, it’s the reason why Google knows you’re looking for a new car or a holiday.

However, now the public is trying to use the law to get their privacy back. In the US, Twitter is facing a possible class action lawsuit for tampering with direct messages. Facebook also faced legal action after it was discovered the company was scanning users’ private messages. And, Google only a few months ago lost an appeal over breach of privacy.

But, while the law has had some success in curtailing online invasion of privacy, the scope and complexity of the Internet makes it an exceptionally challenging task, says Dr Bozzi.

‘The Internet is impossible to regulate, it belong to anyone, and international cooperation has provided elusive thus far,’ he explains.

Governments however, haven’t shied away from trying. In 2014, the European Union’s top court the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled on the Right to be Forgotten, meaning Internet search engines must remove information considered ‘inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive’.

In the following 12 months, Google reportedly processed over 253,617 requests.

In Australia, the Australian Law Reform Commission is pushing for similar reform.

In the paper Serious Invasions of Privacy in the Digital Era, the commission recommends the introduction of new torts on misuse of personal information; and intrusion upon seclusion.

The response has been slow.

For Dr Bozzi users of the internet face important questions: not only whether the law can catch up to Google and co – but whether we want it to.

‘I can see the increasing danger of invasion of privacy as a genuine threat … but it’s a bit of a trade-off. If you criminalise something like invasion of privacy, you start affecting innovation. You’ll stop people even trying to build a product that might of interesting use, simply because they might be committing a crime,’ he argues.

Instead, Dr Bozzi places hope that consumer pressure will force online business to recognise the value of privacy – and even put a price on it.

‘I’d like to see the market, the businesses on the Internet themselves, start to self-regulate. And there I have some confidence that they will be listening to people who say increasingly that they want privacy and they are willing to pay for it,’ he says.

So, yes you are being watched, your data is being collected and you are being profiled, but perhaps it is worth it.

As Dr Bozzi argues, ‘The internet is a great thing. But invasion of privacy is definitely not. How much privacy are users willing to put up with to have the internet as it currently is, and an even better internet? That’s the tipping point we have to consider very carefully right now.’ 

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