The issue of web surveillance is raised by reason of social networks’ activities. These companies collect, process, store and sell large amounts of personal information about their users. The average social network user hardly knows how much information about him or her the platform owner stores. For example, an Australian law student wanted to know how much digital data was stored about him by the Facebook Company during his two-year membership. He requested a copy of all the data of his account. The network sent him a CD containing 1,124 pages of data. When the young man checked the files, he found that every message, and chat session which included sensitive information about him, his personal life, his relations with the other people, and about his friends was on this CD. This young man was especially astonished upon learning that all the information he deleted was still kept on the CD (Addington 2011). Analyzing this experience, it appears that most people do not imagine the real size of the issue because they do not understand that different social media companies keep vast amounts of their personal information.
The issue is complicated by the fact that there are different types of web surveillance which are connected with different sides of the ethical problems; some of them present more difficulties, and some are of a relatively harmless nature. In this paper, the web surveillance 2.0 will be addressed. According to Fuchs (2011, p. 134),
Web 2.0 surveillance is a form of surveillance that exerts power and domination by making use specific qualities of the contemporary Internet, such as user-generated content and permanent dynamic communication flows. It can be characterized as a system of panoptic sorting, mass self-surveillance and personal mass dataveillance.
Facebook is the most popular networking platform (SNS1). Among the other popular SNS are also Twitter and Vkontakte. All of these SNS are typical application of web 2.0 surveillance (Farinosi 2011). Each of these SNS’s keeps millions of personal users’ profiles with the list of their personal contacts, significant pieces of their personal information, and user preferences. These SNS’s also contain vast pieces of data on correspondence between the users including the exchange of photos, music files, documents, and videos. According to Rinklin (2011), more than 700 million Internet users have an account on Facebook. This is astonishing with regards to the fact that the platform was created only in 2004, and became the first Internet site of such kind (Wilson 2007). Facebook technologies enable the acquisition of much information about users having accounts on their platform. The extent of such technologies is addressed in the following comment by Fuchs:
Facebook uses mass surveillance because it stores, compares, assesses and sells the personal data and usage behaviour of several 100 million users. But this mass surveillance is personalized and individualized at the same time because the detailed analysis of the interests and browsing behaviour of each user and the comparison to the online behaviour and interests of other users allows to sort the users into consumer interest groups and to provide each individual user with targeted advertisements.
Using such great opportunities to access the personal data of users, the owners of Facebook are able to earn billions of US dollars (Rinklin 2011; ANDRIOLE 2010). However, it is well known that such huge amounts of money have never been earned for nothing. Therefore, people should be concerned about their privacy, and the other people who gain significant amounts of profits violating constitutional rights for privacy.
SNS companies are listed among profit-making companies, and actually these companies are some of the most successful in their market. Their owners occupy first lines among the billionaires of the Forbes list. The question is how such significant amounts of money are gained. The employees working for SNS’s, collect personal data of their users, and sell them to different commercial companies. SNS’s also provide commercial companies with free areas on their user profiles. Applying the data provided by SNS’s, the representatives of many business companies chase their customers with constant offerings using those free profile areas (Copeland 2011). This is annoying for many people who experience intervention into their private affairs in an effort to sell them different goods and services. Not many users of social networks are happy to see endless offerings of buying different goods on their profiles. The following comment describes Facebook policies in this area:
We allow advertisers to choose the characteristics of users who will see their advertisements and we may use any of the non-personally identifiable attributes we have collected (including information you may have decided not to show to other users, such as your birth year or other sensitive personal information or preferences) to select the appropriate audience for those advertisements. For example, we might use your interest in soccer to show you ads for soccer equipment. We may institute programs with advertising partners and other websites in which they share information with us. […] We may receive information about whether or not you’ve seen or interacted with certain ads on other sites in order to measure the effectiveness of those ads (Fuchs 2011, p. 139).
In reality, the information from this comment by Facebook does not seem comforting for users. It means that during the period of 180 days each user clicking on a certain advertisement or information dedicated to a particular topic may see similar advertisements on his or her account which may become very disturbing. However, this is one of the mechanisms used by Facebook to gain profits by selling personal information about their users.
Of course, commercial surveillance is a part of normal life during our digital era. Numerous organisations collect vast pieces of information about different people and objects on a regular basis. However, the fact that such surveillance is a normal part of life does not solve ethical issues related to it. In addition, being a part of our normal life, SNS companies engaging in the collection of personal information for commercial purposes, do not acquire a status enabling them to break legislative regulations and laws on privacy adopted in the Constitution of the country. Therefore, SNS companies should be limited in their technological opportunities enabling collection and distribution of a personal user information.
There are different points of view concerning the meaning of web 2.0 surveillance for society. Web surveillance, or regular collection of data about individuals in the Internet, is connected to many serious ethical issues for the customers and citizens (Thorne & Kouzmin 2008; Farinosi 2011). Still, there are some positive points in it including the opportunities for organization it offers. In reality, different types of surveillance exist in different societies. An example of such surveillance is the systematic gathering of information during population census, and during different surveys and polls. Addressing such positive points to surveillance, many specialists state that web surveillance has a positive function in the daily life of modern society. They explain that by using personal information about customer preferences, business owners’ may offer their potential customers what they really need. Thus, customers’ time and efforts will be saved because they will not have to spend their time searching on the web for the offerings they need.
Reflecting on the ambiguous nature of web 2.0 surveillance, it appears that the commercial character of web surveillance is connected to the phenomenon of the techno-legal time-gap. Techno-legal time-gap phenomenon appears because of the inability of law to follow all the findings made by the scientists. In fact, technology develops so fast that the government and the public do not succeed in developing corresponding legislation regulating the use of the newly developed technologies (Pearson 2011). In the case with SNS’s, the legal basis for the work of such companies and their Internet platforms is not developed to the extent it should be. Thus, society faces numerous ethical and legislative issues. For example, SNS users do not sign an agreement with the company allowing it to sell his or her personal data to commercial companies, and provide these companies an access for their account. In addition, SNS users would not like to offer commercial companies an access to their list of contacts, and correspondence archive. Besides, SNS users would not be happy to find out that their personal images are monitored by the specialists of numerous sales companies with the purpose of developing targeted advertisements to for their accounts. Thus, the necessity is evident in developing privacy policies regulating the use of private information by SNS companies. Numerous precedents in the history of the country which were similar to this one were only solved by developing wise and balanced legislative regulations taking into account the interests of all the citizens affected by the ethical and moral issues of the problem (Leiboff 2007).
In conclusion, it should be stated that commercial surveillance appears to be an issue that Australian citizens should be worried about. Many citizens are not aware how significant are the pieces of information stored about them by SNS companies. Still, those citizens who aware that vast pieces of their data are sold to the representatives of commercial companies by SNS companies are extremely worried. Such citizens complain that their privacy is disturbed by the annoying targeting advertisements sent to their social networks accounts, and e-mail boxes. The other point in this issue is the fact that at times web surveillance and other types of surveillance are useful for potential customers as collected data saves their time when offering them services and goods they may need. This suggests that the government should developed new and balanced privacy policies for regulating the activity of web 2.0 surveillance companies.
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1 – According to Fuchs, such companies are SNS, not SNP