In the wake of shootings, hurricanes, fires, and other disasters, we can feel helpless. Personally, I compensate by trying to identify those threats I can control for. And as a tech entrepreneur, I inevitably land on the daily eroding of our online privacy. This issue resonates with me not because of my professional experience; it’s because I’m a dad to three young daughters. I’ve worked hard to insulate them from predators, to protect financial family assets and preserve them for my children’s benefit. But what can I do to protect them and their own intellectual property as they’re growing up? Perhaps more importantly, how can I best teach them to protect themselves?
The problem isn’t just my girls losing little pieces of their privacy with every keystroke in the public domain, every “like” or emoji, every bit of content they consume (or create). I’m deeply concerned for the entire next generation — one that has never known life before the internet — and how to safeguard the personal evolution of growing human beings. That evolution, like mine as a child, should be rife with mistakes, unpredictable twists and turns, all based on a normally developing brain. With today’s analytics, behavior is recorded, regressed, and ultimately bucketed to maximize monetization. We’re left with less creativity and innovation, because predictive behavior data doesn’t open doors; instead, it funnels us through them.
Don’t get me wrong — there are tremendous benefits to monitoring behavior as a society. Imagine a world where crime is a fraction of what it is today; where homes or appliances report fires to the fire department while humans are still sleeping; where traffic accidents cease to exist; where our collective knowledge increases exponentially, in areas like the environmental impact on disease manifestation. These benefits aren’t for some distant tomorrow — they’re for today, but still in their infancy. But what is the cost? In particular, when we only focus on the benefits of unbridled data collection, what does it mean for children and the awkwardly beautiful process of growing up?
I think the answer is threefold. First, we need a meaningful public dialogue about balancing privacy concerns without harming economic growth, consumer convenience, and public safety/health issues. We do this by bringing the stakeholders to the table to strengthen the umbrella of legal protection to consumers and particularly kids. We need policymakers who understand (or aren’t afraid of) the complex interplay between economic growth, human rights, human development and happiness. Second, we need to have much simpler, easier, and clear mechanisms to govern our children’s online experience. Lastly, we need to challenge our kids to be critical consumers of information to avoid being channeled along market-driven paths.
How many times have you blown past “Before continuing, please read and accept our terms and conditions” without understanding the consequences? This and similar phrases have become ubiquitous in our online and app-driven lives. Yet most of us haven’t even begun to grasp the hidden cost behind “Yes, I Accept”. We sanction without understanding and without knowing our alternatives. Because let’s be honest — who has the patience, legal understanding, or even time of day to read through an endless stream of fine print? Who even has the bandwidth to process what it all means? Certainly our kids do not.
There are laws and rulings in place that address privacy concerns in the US, with much more stringent policies in place in Europe. As evidenced by the recent hack of children’s smart toys, however, technology moves much faster than our legal system — forcing policymakers into the difficult position of playing catch up.
Superseding any law or ruling, of course, is our right to privacy. This right underpins both the right to dignity and the right to free speech. As a Supreme Court justice described, “The decision in favor of anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one’s privacy as possible.” Juxtapose that statement against Eric Schmidt, former Google chief executive, who told CNBC: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.”
Schmidt’s Silicon Valley attitude isn’t isolated. The CEO of FaceFirst recently idealized technology as “making the world a smaller place. It's kind of like living in a small town where everybody knows your name." Yet small towns aren’t just charming and familial — they can be downright oppressive.
And the impact upon our children? Without better safeguards in place, without a consumer movement demanding policy, without policymakers prioritizing an issue without special interest backing, it’s quite possible that kids today will fear being recorded and possibly won’t evolve organically. How they do evolve will be based on the information being presented to them online. So stay tuned. In the second part of this post, I’ll discuss strategies to raise critical consumers of online information — and our next steps as a society.