Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of Iceland’s Parliament, writes: Before my Twitter case, in which the US Department of Justice has demanded that the social media site hands over personal information about my account which it deems necessary to its investigation of WikiLeaks, I didn’t think much about what rights I would be signing off when accepting user agreement in my computer. The text is usually lengthy, in a legal language that most people don’t understand. Very few people read the user agreements, and very few understand their legal implications if someone in the real world would try to use one against them.
Many of us who use the internet – be it to write emails, work or browse its growing landscape: mining for information, connecting with others or using it to organise ourselves in various groups of the like-minded – are not aware of that our behavior online is being monitored. Profiling has become a default with companies such as Google and Facebook. These companies have huge databases recording our every move within their environment, in order to groom advertising to our interests. For them, we are only consumers to push goods at, in order to sell ads through an increasingly sophisticated business model. For them, we are not regarded as citizens with civic rights.
This notion needs to change. No one really knew where we were heading a few years ago: neither we the users, nor the companies harvesting our personal information for profit. Very few of us imagined that governments that claim to be democratic would invade our online privacy with no regard to the fundamental rights we are supposed to have in the real world. We might look to China and other stereotypical totalitarian states and expect them to violate the free flow of information and our digital privacy, but not – surely? – our very own democratically elected governments.
What I have learned about my lack of rights in the last few months is of concern for everyone who uses the internet and calls for actions to raise people’s awareness about their legal rights and ways to improve legal guidelines about digital media, be it locally or globally. The problem – and the dilemma we are facing – is that there are no proper standards, no basic laws in place that deal with the fundamental question: are we to be treated as consumers or citizens online? There is no international charter that says we should have the same civic rights as we have in the offline world.