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With the web becoming an increasingly monitored space, each of us has a role to play in safeguarding online privacy

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Carlos Iglesias, Senior Research Manager from the World Wide Web Foundation, comments on the role we each play in safeguarding online privacy.

Privacy and freedom exist in every culture, supported by international frameworks like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Online, protecting this right is crucial.

A Digital World: Perceptions of risk from AI and misuse of personal data

Read the report

How online platforms empower freedom of expression and public discourse

Across the world, in every culture and society, there is a notion of privacy and freedom. Those may be established in different forms or fall under different categories, but they do exist, underpinned by international frameworks like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As our lives are increasingly played out online, the rules that protect the universal and fundamental right to privacy are of paramount importance.

Today, the Web is one of the principal means by which individuals exercise their right to freedom of expression and information. It provides essential tools for participation and discussions concerning political and general interest issues. Online platforms are becoming the new public squares, where public discourse and debate take place. They provide a space for communities to come together, discuss, share ideas, and make change happen. They are now our town halls and our cafes, our libraries, and our newsagents.

A whole new set of privacy challenges

At the same time, fuelled by a drive towards more powerful and complex data analytics, and by the increasing amount and granularity of personal data available today, more and more of our online lives are under observation.

 

We now face a whole new set of challenges regarding our privacy and data rights. Not just for the indelible data portions of our digital identity that we frequently and actively share ourselves, but also due to the sheer number of additional data points that are generated or attributed to us through monitoring and inference from our online activity – all too often without our knowledge.

According to the latest Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll report - A Digital World: Perceptions of risk from AI and misuse of personal data, at least three out of four internet users worldwide are ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ concerned that their personal information online could be stolen (77%) or used by companies for marketing purposes without their permission (74%). In addition, two-thirds of them (68%) are equally concerned that their personal data could be used by the government without their permission.

While we are more aware of the perils of persistent online tracking, targeted advertising, and surveillance capitalism, we still don’t know much about how all that really works in the background, and to what extent it might affect our online and offline lives and privacy. This clearly limits our capacity to react, object and opt-out, generally leaving us without alternatives.

A deepening feeling of inequality

Moreover, the online world always mirrors and frequently amplifies offline harms and inequalities and, as a result, marginalized groups are also more acutely affected by safety and privacy issues. The World Risk Poll report also shows us how lower-income internet users or those who said they had experienced discrimination based on their skin colour, race/ethnicity, sex, religion, or disability status were also more likely to be very worried about possible misuses of their private information. This demonstrates how privacy challenges contribute to deepening inequality and make the web feel like a less welcoming place.

There are increasing calls for new approaches towards respecting the data rights of individuals and communities and allowing users to retain a sphere of privacy and autonomy to explore the web freely and without the constant threat of interference or surveillance. People are demanding greater control over their privacy and stronger data rights. Strong privacy rules enable data use in a protective way. They stablish guidelines for the appropriate use of data based on its purpose and the surrounding circumstances.

Our right to privacy demands more ambitious policy proposals and solid regulatory data protection frameworks. We need to start questioning current practices and look for more effective solutions. People and their privacy must be at the forefront of all discussions. That’s why the Web Foundation is calling on governments, companies, and citizens to build a new social Contract for the Web and adopt a shared set of commitments for respecting, protecting, and fulfilling people’s online data rights.

Governments must preserve people’s personal data by establishing and enforcing comprehensive data protection frameworks and rights to foster online trust. Companies must give every user options to access online content and use online services that protect their privacy. Citizens should take proactive steps to protect their individual and collective privacy and security by demanding privacy-enhanced products and services and articulating privacy preferences accordingly.

Everyone has a role to play in safeguarding privacy online so we can use the internet safely and without fear.