Communication and Technology  

A New Standard for Protecting Our Digital Data

Government agencies charged with regulating digital technologies such as Snapchat and Whisper should do so under a standard that assumes most people don’t fully understand the technology and how it protects their privacy, argues Jasmine McNealy, assistant Telecommunication professor at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, and her colleague Heather Shoenberger, assistant professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, in a new paper titled Reconsidering Privacy-Promising Technologies.

Protecting our digital data is a major concern in today’s world, and companies often tout their privacy bona fides as a way to draw in customers and encourage them to share their data. Governmental agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which are tasked with protecting consumers from misleading advertisements, often rely on a standard that asks, “Would this ad mislead a consumer acting reasonably?” to determine whether the company is being deceptive. In other words, if a company’s statement would fool or confuse most people, it’s considered deceptive.

McNealy and Shoenberger argue that the problem with this standard is that most customers don’t understand how the technology works – at least not fully – and so are more susceptible to misleading advertisements from unscrupulous companies. Likewise, some online activities, such as using social networking sites, have become so engrained in our culture that people may forego privacy concerns just to connect with their peers. In this case, McNealy and Shoenberger suggest that consumers deserve more protection.

There’s precedent for separating out some types of consumers for more protection based on their vulnerability. Advertisements aimed at the elderly and young children, for example, are held to a different standard than ads targeting adults, because it’s thought that these groups are more likely to misinterpret ads. For instance, the elderly may not have the expertise to evaluate medical claims, and children may not have the cognitive ability to tell when a toy’s features have been enhanced for advertising appeal. Patients with a terminal illness get special protection from misleading medical claims because they likely lack the medical expertise to determine whether a medical product does what it claims.

To better protect online consumers, the authors suggest that the FTC develop voluntary industry standards for companies promising privacy to their customers. The companies can use these guidelines to ensure that their advertisements are not deceptively describing their products and that their customers are well-informed about what the product can and cannot offer.

“These suggestions recognize two important issues with new privacy-promising technologies,” the authors write. “First, the viewpoint of the audience is important. That is, the average person will not be digitally literate and may not be able to critically evaluate claims of enhanced privacy protection. Second, the suggestions place the onus on the corporation to live up to its privacy claims.”

Jasmine McNealy is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Telecommunication at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications where she studies information, communication and technology with a view toward influencing law and policy.

Posted: January 25, 2017
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