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Digital lobbying and privacy – what’s your personal information worth?

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The recent failing of a piece of US legislation which would have imparted stricter privacy guidelines on social networking sites has given rise to some concern online regarding the political power of internet giants such as Google and Facebook, and possible future repercussions of continued lobbying by digital corporations.

Facebook recently lobbied against the Social Network Privacy Act in the Californian senate, which would have banned social networking sites publishing phone numbers or addresses of minors. While the bill passed the Californian state senate, it failed to pass in the state Assembly.

Though the US Senate’s lobbying disclosure database shows Facebook currently spends relatively little on political lobbying, other digital companies such as Apple, Yahoo and Google are reported to have spent $1.6 billion, $2.21 billion and $5.16 billion respectively on lobbyists in 2010.

With much of everyday life now taking place in cyberspace, some analysts have questioned the impact such spending on political lobbying by digital companies could have in regards to privacy protection worldwide.

However Dr Peter Dell, senior lecturer at Curtin’s School of Information Systems, says it is to be expected digital companies will spend vast sums on political lobbying, particularly in instances such as the Social Network Privacy Act.

‘I can’t say I’m surprised they lobbied, I mean their whole business model is about sharing and building information about people, and then using it and selling it,’ Dr Dell said.

‘Facebook’s defence would be if you don’t want people to know, don’t put it in. But it’s not necessarily an adequate defence, because there’s the issue of informed consent; a fifteen-year-old can’t necessarily be expected to understand the full implications of putting their phone number or address on Facebook.’

The issue of international digital privacy laws has become murkier in recent years, with many companies storing information on servers in other countries. This has led concerns over the possibility of people’s information being stored in a country with differing data privacy laws than that of the country in which they live.

While Dell admits this could pose future issues, particularly with companies privy to more personal information such as financial institutions, he says those in Australia concerned with their online privacy should be more focussed on the privacy laws currently in place domestically.

Dell cited the recent controversy regarding  a major telecommunications provider, whose customer billing and call records were allegedly available on a publicly accessible website after a security breach, to highlight the ineffectiveness of Australia’s privacy legislation.

‘The Privacy Commission doesn’t have a lot of power, and I think that sort of problem has a lot greater impact on privacy here than a bit of lobbying by a technology company in Silicon Valley,’ he said.

‘What  happens to  these companies? Bad press, that’s it, they certainly aren’t fined millions of dollars. That would certainly be a good place to start if people were really concerned about privacy, they should lobby for change to that sort of legislation. There are also various state laws, so there are lots of pieces of legislation that can be looked at, so if an Australian citizen subject to Australian jurisdiction is worried about their information, worry about those pieces of law before what’s happening in another country.’

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