Law in the Internet Society

It was not a long time ago when we thought of the internet as a place to remain anonymous. Our social media accounts offered ways of masking our identities with weird nicknames. We could fill the gaps with false information and yet nobody could say anything, because we thought nobody could find out who we were, where we lived, which school we were going to or what was the next thing we would more likely to buy online. Today net is the place where anonymity is dead. In contrast, people work on finding ways to hide their profiles, preferences, likes an dislikes while browsing in the internet. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter paved the way for this "de-anonymization" and it seems like there is no turning back.

When the net knows your pregnancy before you do

In 2014, Princeton sociologist, Janet Vertesi run a test to see whether it was possible to hide her pregnancy from the internet. She told every family member not to contact her about it through any technological means. Maybe shutting down her social media accounts would have made it easier, but she wanted to see the possibility to remain anonymous while she was actually online. Despite the warnings, one of her relatives sent her a private Facebook message, assuming it could not be traced down by the data-mining technology. She immediately deleted the message and "unfriended" that relative as she was aware that Facebook could also collect data through private messages.

She made her purchases with cash and also did not buy anything with her credit card online. Instead, she created an alternative mail account, did the shopping with pre-paid gift cards and sent it to a shared locker of Amazon. She even bought prenatal vitamins in cash, so as to make sure that no one could even relate the idea of her getting pregnant sooner or later. However, her efforts to remain anonymous made her look like a criminal. When she wanted to continue shopping with a pre-paid card she was warned by Rite Aid that if the transaction excessed a certain amount, they would report it to the authorities.

Vertesi's ultimate aim in this project is to show that our personal lives are monetized and monitored, yet we often take it for granted. On to that account, in an age of constant surveillance, how is privacy structured? Is it possible to hide from big data or is it possible to fool it? These questions are too broad to answer and concerns a wide range of disciplines, but proposing the idea of living in a digital panopticon where anonymity is disappeared, would be one way to start thinking about them. Given the broad analysis on surveillance regimes by scholars like Foucault and recent findings on "de-anonymization"; I will try to show that opting-out is not possible.

Digital Panopticon and Anonymity

Weber's iron cage proposes the idea that in modern times rationalization and bureaucratization create institutions that seek maximum efficiency. Foucault advocates a parallel theory with panopticon that dehumanization is a result of advance forms of technologies and disciplines. Rationalization, for Foucault, is the pursuit of controlling human life with constant surveillance and calculation. Therefore, as rationalization occupies every aspect of human life, technology becomes capable of producing more pervasive means of control.

The panopticon of today is the internet, as it constantly observes behavior, exerts its power over it and commodifies human attention. The net violates the boundaries of private sphere and through conscious or unconscious participation it collects tremendous amounts of data to ensure market efficiency. However, assuring efficacy and privacy simultaneously are at odds with each other. One of them should take over the other if one wants to survive. As in the case of Vertesi, the internet had to find out about her pregnancy, since a pregnant women is worth three times more than an ordinary individual. The reason is, a future mother is highly valuable if she needs to buy diapers, because it will affect her long-term consumption patterns. Vertesi could only hide her secret for 7 months until Target and American Baby Life managed to find out about her situation, but realized that isolation efforts were time consuming and could even be risky.

The Illusion of Privacy

The participant in the net continuously leaves his digital footprints behind and the net makes sure that every photo, mail, video is attributed to its source whether the source wants it or not. Even though users try to mask their information somehow, technologies often find new ways to "de-anonymize" every single data. As the law professor Ohm states; "...the re-identification science makes the claims of privacy an illusion as by mixing and matching several sources of data, it is possible to reach the private...almost all information can be personal when combined with enough numbers of relevant data...". Therefore, the net has conquered our personal sphere and it is not possible to guarantee privacy for its users as merging various data sources can destroy the barriers of privacy.


The internet overall repurposes the understanding of privacy and redistributes it in order to capitalize and modify behaviour for profit. Digital platforms that are connecting us electronically provide several spaces for all sorts of transactions in order to know who says what and where. It is alarming in the sense that it challenges notions of privacy, freedom and trust. We should be aware that anything we do on the net will never cease to exist. The technology of today is worrisome and regulators need to implement more efficient policies that weight harm against benefit and privacy against efficacy.



Webs Webs

r3 - 08 Dec 2016 - 17:21:38 - MerveKirmaci
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM