Law in the Internet Society

The Value of Autonomy

-- By JuvariaKhan - 25 Nov 2009

The Attention Economy

We currently live in an attention economy, where entertainment is no longer a commodity but simply a means to get the attention of consumers like us. The increased ease of communication means that we are bombarded with an overload of advertisements all vying for our attention; capturing our attention thus becomes every advertiser’s goal. As Eben mentioned in class, Google has a hold on the most important transaction in this attention economy – search. When I want to know what the temperature is like back home in Arizona, Google will provide, in less than a second, an hour-by-hour forecast. If I want to read what bloggers in Iran are writing about, Google will direct me to the dissidents I searched for. Google maximizes efficiency by providing me with exactly what I want to know right when I want to know it.

So what’s the problem? Well, to begin with it, it is disconcerting. If I look up airplane tickets to Las Vegas and come back to purchase them three weeks later, I do not want Orbitz to have remembered my search and therefore increased the price of tickets because they know I plan on buying them. There is also the issue of privacy, or lack of it: my searches are not secret, since other parties can clearly see (and remember) what I searched for on Amazon; there is no anonymity because when I want to purchase something personal online, I have to reveal my identity, thus allowing any interested advertiser to view and track my information; and there is no autonomy because the ads that pop up whenever I search anything coerce me towards buying the advertiser’s product, “recommending” what I might like based on my interests instead of letting me think for myself.

  • This seems a very weak argument. The ads that pop up in magazines, newspapers, billboards, TV screens, taxicabs and everywhere else might be said with equal justice to be doing the same thing.

Some skeptics might argue that they have nothing to hide and therefore are unconcerned that their information is being monitored and tracked every time they search on Google or buy something on Amazon; these individuals apparently place low value on their personal autonomy.

  • You have to show that, you can't just assert it.

Other people, however, have already felt the high price of someone monitoring their online activities. The passage of the Patriot Act and similar legislation after September 11 has given the government unparalleled access to use such information as it sees fit. This includes monitoring any website suspected to foster “terrorist activity.”

  • "Monitoring a website" in this context means looking at something somebody published. So what?

For example, the government admits monitoring the website of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric thought to have influenced Major Nidal Malik Hasan before his rampage at Fort Hood. See While this may seem innocent enough in the name of national security, the government’s over-inclusive methods clearly bring up a slippery slope argument – which sites fall within the scope of national security and how far can the government go in using the information it finds? The ability of websites like Google to remember everything we search for, coupled with the government’s ability to access this information, means that the government can easily distort an innocent search into an action threatening national security.

  • That's not monitoring a website, that's serving a subpoena. Let's keep this clear for the reader as we go.

Should anyone with the last name “Mohamed” who has to research terrorist networks for a school paper be paranoid about what he enters in the search engine, lest it somehow come back to haunt him? Besides our autonomy at stake, our First Amendment rights are arguably also burdened by this system.

  • This is a claim that has nothing to do with the point at which you started.

Looking Forward

How can this intrusion into our privacy be mitigated? I believe the real power lies in us, the consumers. In this attention economy, the advertisers yearn to capture our attention and have succeeded in doing so through the subtle and nuanced methods discussed above. The bulk of us, myself included, more often than not fail to think of the autonomy consequences of “googling” everything that pops in our minds and posting whatever seems humorous on Facebook. Were we as a group to become more conscientious consumers and fight for the return of our autonomy, advertisers would be forced to alter their behavior to cater to our desires.

  • What would we ask for, in your hypothetical world? They are going to cater to us by not catering to us, protecting their business by reducing it?

Such a dramatic shift would of course require an entirely different approach to education. As part of their computer classes, elementary school children should be taught the basic tenants of protecting their privacy when using a computer.

  • You think you know how to teach privacy technology to elementary school children? It would be interesting to see how.

This could be done by emphasizing that what we type when we search online is not secret or anonymous unless we make a conscious effort to protect it.

  • By doing what? That seems to require teaching more than you know.

As students get older, educators should more fully emphasize the autonomy consequences discussed above by letting students know that they are a particularly vulnerable group: as more children begin using the internet at an earlier age, advertisers have a greater opportunity and a longer length of time to gather information about them. The coercive potential of this information should be discussed openly in society. This debate would lead to more informed consumers, who could then lobby for changed laws that prohibit advertisers from indefinitely retaining the information they compile on us, instead requiring them to delete it regularly.

  • Right after they are allowed to force you to forget things they don't want you to remember? What sort of free society are you now talking about?

Such a method would allow us to retain the benefits of an efficient search and access to the wealth of information that is available online without having to worry about compromising our autonomy.

  • There is no compromise of autonomy in a regime that permits government to tell you what you are allowed to learn, what you are required to forget, and what you may think about? Give me a break.

Further, while it might sound outlandish to argue that such a right to privacy is constitutionally protected, the Supreme Court has consistently held that individuals do have a privacy right in what were previously unconventional contexts, such as in the bedroom. See Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965); Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438 (1972); Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973); Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003). If conscientious consumers become the norm, the Supreme Court might be more likely to extend this right to privacy to the realm of the Internet through enforcing legislation forbidding the retention of consumer information. All of these possibilities can only occur if we as consumers take back control of the information that is rightfully ours.

  • Umm, are you sure that's the same "privacy"?

Your paper has a great call to action -- I like it! My paper kind of fumbles around the solution and ends fatalistically. Since we dealt with the same subject matter I thought I should comment.

I like your approach to getting people riled up through education. But how to get society agitated enough to make the educational changes in the first place? People just don't care right now, and without public pressure schools aren't going to change. Maybe some hysterical mommy-power campaign for protecting children against sex predators would help -- but that's addressing a distinctly different matter than consumer profiling.

As far as court action is concerned, the problem seems to me to be that consumers agree via terms of use to be data mined. If there were a privacy right covering data retention, it would surely be waivable...and therefore useless since everyone except the privacy hyper-aware would waive it.

-- GavinSnyder - 29 Nov 2009


I enjoyed your paper. Your educational solution to the loss of autonomy problem is right on the money. The example of people who say that they “have nothing to hide and therefore are unconcerned that their information is being monitored and tracked every time they search on Google or buy something on Amazon” is quite telling and is indicative of the major problem in this area. I lived in England over the summer and witnessed a similar mindset. The vast majority of people that I talked to did not seem to care that they were constantly being videotaped from every angle by a web of CCTV cameras (see my paper). The prevailing thought was, “I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I care?” In my opinion, ignorance of the consequences of the loss of autonomy and privacy is the main reason why it is occurring all over the world—and education is the best solution.

I like your constitutional argument. Unfortunately, it seems extremely unlikely that any legislation forbidding the tracking of consumer information will come about any time soon.

-- ScottMcKinney - 02 Dec 2009


Great paper. I agree that a call to action is the way to go and the approach of early privacy education is a clever one.

One question - I was confused by the line "the Supreme Court has consistently held that individuals do have a privacy right in what were previously unconventional contexts, such as in the bedroom." I don't quite understand - isn't a privacy right for what occurs in a bedroom a very conventional context? Perhaps the most conventional of all, absent perhaps the mind itself?

-- BrianS - 03 Dec 2009

I'm not sure legislation is needed. With education and awareness, if the market even has a small minority of people concerned with Google's actions, they would conduct at least some of their searches on a service like SafeGoogle? (fictional) that does not track data and advertises as such.

Legislation would accomplish very little unless we make information unalienable or unstorable (which has its own practical problems), because people have shown a great willingness so far to sell their privacy for convenience. It is also overbroad if it bans the transfer of information because as much as our personal information is part of our autonomy, so is our ability to share it with others.

-- JakeWang - 05 Dec 2009



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r9 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:44:11 - IanSullivan
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