I’d hazard a guess that this could be more broadly stated that people world-wide don’t understand how their data is being used by companies and governments, but the basis for this generalization comes from a study published by the US by the Annenberg School for Communication entitled “Americans Can’t Consent to Companies’ Use of Their Data.” A bold statement for a country for whom a large part of their economy is derived from monetizing digital ones and zeroes, but the subtitle tells us the rest of the story: “They Admit They Don’t Understand It, Say They’re Helpless To Control It, and Believe They’re Harmed When Firms Use Their Data – Making What Companies Do Illegitimate.”
Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue
The survey asked 2000 Americans 17 true-false questions about how companies gather and use data for digital marketing purposes, and if participants were to be graded on the traditional academic scale, most of the class failed, and only 1 person out of the 2000 got an “A”. An example of the type of knowledge tested:
FACT: The Federal Health Insurance and Portability Act (HIPAA) does not stop apps that provide information about health – such as exercise and fertility apps – from selling data collected about the app users to marketers. 82% of Americans don’t know; 45% admit they don’t know.“Americans Can’t Consent to Companies’ Use of Their Data: They Admit They Don’t Understand It, Say They’re Helpless To Control It, and Believe They’re Harmed When Firms Use Their Data – Making What Companies Do Illegitimate.” Turow, Lelkes, Draper, Waldman, 2023.
You should read this paper (or at least the summary), but I understand it if you don’t. Even though it reads easier than your typical academic paper, the topic is uncomfortable for those who have an inkling of what’s at stake, and for most of us, we’ve already resigned ourselves to not being able to do anything about it because we feel powerless to do otherwise. And this is their point – this paper wasn’t written merely as an academic exercise. The authors are basically claiming that because very few of us can understand the variety and extent to which companies collect and use our data, there is no possible way we can give genuine informed consent for them to do so. But unless there are laws that protect us in this regard, American companies can do as they please, and they will do so because their responsibility is not people but to stakeholders, and in this current market, minding everyone’s privacy is not nearly as profitable as ignoring it.
This report now provides evidence that notice-and-consent may be beyond repair—and could even be harmful to individuals and society. Companies may argue they offer ways for people to stop such tracking. But as we have seen, a great percentage of the US population has no understanding of how the basics of the commercial internet work. Expecting Americans to learn how to continually keep track of how and when to opt out, opt in, and expunge their data is folly.ibid, Page 18 (emphasis mine)
As is often the case with academic papers, rarely do the authors take on the monumental task of attempting to solve the issue, but they at least acknowledge that the possible only way to even begin is for our lawmakers to acknowledge this enormous elephant on the internet.
We hope the findings of this study will further encourage all policymakers to flip the script so that the burden of protection from commercial surveillance is not mostly on us. The social goal must be to move us away from the emptiness of consent.ibid, Page 19 (emphasis mine)
Perhaps a letter to your elected representatives asking them if they’ve read this article and have any interest in doing something about it?
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