The Digital Divide

Recent events reveal a digital divide between preserving Internet freedom and protecting individual privacy.Digital freedom and privacy are surging onto political platforms, legislative agendas and court dockets, with sometimes overlapping impacts.

In the wake of a massive online protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) last week, U.S. congressional leaders shoved the "online piracy" legislation favored by traditional media interests into a broom closet. Protecting the intellectual property of movie makers and book publishers was trumped by cries for Internet freedom.

Meanwhile, many of the same online giants who backed last week's Internet blackout protest may be looking at tougher online user privacy legislation in the European Union. The New York Times reports the EU will introduce a measure requiring Amazon, Facebook, Google and others to obtain explicit approval from their users before sharing personal data with advertisers. They also must scrub personal data permanently from their databases at a user request or face heavy fines in what one EU official called a move toward "online transparency."

The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in with a narrow ruling, with vast implications, indicating law enforcement officers must obtain a warrant before placing a GPS device on a suspect's vehicle. Justices hinted it may be time for Congress to act to clarify just how much privacy citizens can expect in an age when banks, retailers and social media sites routinely mine online data. The court's ruling pumped new life into legislation Oregon Senator Ron Wyden introduced last summer to clarify privacy protection involving police use of electronic surveillance equipment.

The specter of Big Brother tracking your whereabouts by tapping into your smartphone signal is scary. But it is in some ways just a police app for FourSquare, which allows a user to note where they are so friends can find them. Yes, the intent is different, but not a 180-degree difference.

People all over the world have become dependent on digital technology. Young people are a great example — they prefer texting one another over that old analog habit of phoning a friend. A lot of the appeal of the Internet, frankly, is in its "free"-dom. But that low-cost comes with some caveats, including the ability of social media site owners building profiles of users that have monetary value to advertisers. Regulation, even in the name of online transparency, could put a damper on the expansion of online activity.

There won't be any easy answers to unsnarl the inherent conflicts in deciding how much digital freedom and privacy we will have. But it is an issue that calls out for active citizen engagement, and not just online activism.