Consent, tactical privacy protection, and the future of the online digital economy

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The online advertising business model supports a diverse range of online services available on the contemporary Internet. It has led to the creation of an online market where websites and content producers compete for a user’s clicks to financially sustain their platforms and produce economic value. A challenge that the online digital economy continues to face is the issue of privacy, as developments in the business model have resulted in the invasive corporate surveillance of Internet users. The principle of consent is essential in maintaining a user’s autonomy over their own personal information, however it is often violated due to a dramatic imbalance between the rights of the user and the online service provider. The issue of consent is exacerbated when considering children, who are increasingly using services on the Internet but do not have the capacity to give their meaningful consent to the use of their personal information online.

Many policy gaps can be identified in Canada’s privacy regulation, and the world more widely, allowing; data brokers to circumvent users’ information revelation choices by buying and selling information, implied consent to online tracking and cookie installation, and disproportionate information collection as a condition of service for online applications. Other tools that are used evade an individual’s autonomy over information about themselves undermine the privacy rights of users, such as forum selection clauses that can be used to evade a nation’s privacy laws, and de-anonymization techniques. The Canadian Privacy Commissioner’s reliance on consumer complaints to address privacy violations and lack of order-making power to legally enforce its recommendations, result in a precarious privacy regime. Advertisers also use a variety of methods to increase the visibility of their advertisements, many of which are intrusive for the user. Such advertisements include pop-ups, auto play, overly large ads, and forced ads where content is blocked until the ad is viewed.

In an effort to regain control over their own online experience, many users are resorting to browser extensions such as AdNauseam, TrackMeNot, Adblock, and other advertisement circumvention tools. The use of ad blockers results in a shift in power where the control of one’s online experience is returned to the user. The principles of consent and choice to selectively reveal personal information are foundational to the online privacy rights of users.

The rising trend of using online obfuscation methods to control a user’s privacy is concerning given the many services that rely on the Internet’s online behavioural advertising business model. It is therefore important to study the ethical implications of using ad-blocking tools online, and the justifications for using them. Advocates of ad-blocking tools argue that they are necessary to create market conditions that push advertisers to create better ads and collect user information in a more responsible manner. Ad-blocking as an ethical practice can also be argued using concepts of user empowerment, contextual integrity, digital labour, and disconnection. Others believe that the circumvention of advertisements may be equated with theft, given the commodification of user information for the financing of internet services.

Although blocking advertisements allows consumers to improve their individualistic online experience in the short-term, it ultimately results in harming users’ privacy and the diversity of online services available to them. This is due to the temporality of user empowerment from ad circumvention, the market effects of its popular use, including impacts on privacy, and the rise in the paid subscription business model as an alternative. A more equal balance between the online privacy of users and interests of the advertising industry needs to be struck, however it’s precise distribution remains a challenge.

 

 


Dal Singh

dal.singh@mail.utoronto.ca

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