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Rugged individualism vs. privacy

America's cult of individualism is being put to the test in the fight for digital rights.

Published onMay 29, 2021
Rugged individualism vs. privacy

The theme of the week continues in this important piece on data privacy from the MIT Tech Review:

Individuals should not have to fight for their data privacy rights and be responsible for every consequence of their digital actions. Consider an analogy: people have a right to safe drinking water, but they aren’t urged to exercise that right by checking the quality of the water with a pipette every time they have a drink at the tap. Instead, regulatory agencies act on everyone’s behalf to ensure that all our water is safe. The same must be done for digital privacy: it isn’t something the average user is, or should be expected to be, personally competent to protect.

The question of what individuals should be expected to do, and what can only be accomplished via collective action, pervades nearly every important question of our time, from pandemic recovery to labor practices to climate change and beyond.

In the last 14 months, we’ve seen the limits of America’s addiction to individualism laid bare in our disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic that focused mostly on convincing individuals to comply with confusing mask and travel regulations rather than sweeping government responses. We’ve also seen the promise of collective action, both in civil society and in government, in the form of the George Floyd protests last summer and the pandemic recovery bill, latter of which has helped the United States lead the world’s economic recovery.

I wouldn’t say I’m particularly optimistic about the future, but perhaps there is some hope to be had that the pandemic has chipped away some at the poisonous “small government” philosophy that has dominated the last 50 years of political discourse. A renewed interest in what government can do, as opposed to what it can’t, is borne out in both opinion polling and the fact that the largest spending bill in the country’s history is also one of the most popular pieces of legislation of all time.

Whether, and how, a renewed public interest in government action will translate to regulation in the tech sphere remains to be seen. But if one thing is clear, it’s that only government regulation has the power to reign in tech companies and protect user privacy, particularly when it comes to Facebook. Almost nothing — not “quit Facebook” movements on the user side or even multi-billion dollar boycotts on the advertiser side — has lead to a meaningful change in the company’s policies or revenue.

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