The Privacy Movement Is Not (Just) About Privacy

The privacy movement that brought us Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (which effectively ended the European businesses of multiple ad tech firms and some publishers), California’s statewide law slated for January, and legislation in another 10+ US states will not succeed in the long term because Americans care about privacy—not in the strict sense in which we typically understand the term.

Privacy has been slipping away from us since before then-CEO of Sun Microsystems Scott McNealy said we had none of it in January 1999. Americans still do not understand how companies use their data. While that is a transparency issue incumbent upon businesses to fix — and legislation will to some degree remedy it — I think it more likely than not that Americans will continue to hand over their data to Amazon for two-day delivery and Google for the sleekness of search. What we typically conceive of as privacy itself — concern about how much of our information companies possess — is not the factor that will turn the tides on company practices and legal standards.

If a number of states pass privacy legislation and a national bill emerges down the line, it will not be because a critical mass of consumers is concerned about handing over their information but because privacy happens to intersect with broader animus toward corporations and a widespread awakening in recent years about the twenty-first century’s new Gilded Age. I am referring, of course, to economic inequality of the kind constantly condemned by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the most popular politicians among the young money-spending millennials all advertisers court. It will help that this is a rare bipartisan issue because Republicans are leading the public to believe, without sufficient evidence, that tech platforms are discriminating against their perspectives. But the primary catalyst for shifting winds on privacy will be an electorate increasingly aware that the seemingly free (Facebook, Google), relatively cheap (Amazon), and convenient (all of the above) companies they patronize are making a killing on their information while many customers and users struggle to make a living.

This, I posit, is why privacy will prove a lasting conversation in politics and corporate offices alike. It’s not that young millennials and Gen-Zers, who grew up posting their information online and consider convenience a given, will suddenly revolt against Google, Facebook, and Amazon for the sake of safeguarding their data. It’s that economic inequality is among the foremost issues of the day for the young, mostly liberal, highly educated people who will found and staff the tech companies of tomorrow, buy their products, and push for coming years’ political agendas. Once those people understand they have been handing over their “most valuable asset” to the most valuable companies in the world for free, privacy will become a staple of at least one major party’s agenda. Respecting consumers’ privacy will cease to be simply a favor to consumers and best ethical practice. It will be codified as law and essential to survival in the court of public opinion.

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Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He joined Street Fight as a contributing writer in 2015, has compiled the daily newsletter since 2016, and has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Follow him on Twitter @joe_zappa, and shoot him an email at jzappa@streetfightmag.com.
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