4 important facts about the history of online privacy protection

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The invention of the internet permanently changed the way we live. The internet was designed to facilitate the way we access information and make daily life more convenient, but going online has also affected the quality of our privacy. Though the issue of online privacy protection is relatively new in the large scheme of things, it’s becoming increasingly more pressing. 

The more often we use the internet to shop, work, and connect, the more we knowingly and unknowingly spread our personal information across the web. Today, you don’t create a digital footprint only by posting something — you also leave a trail of personally identifiable information (PII) when you browse a website, type a question into Google, create an account, download an app, or fill out an online form. 

PII includes anything someone can use to identify you, like your name, email address, phone number, or credit card. Though you may feel comfortable sharing certain personal details, it’s difficult to trust that every company or website you interact with is successfully protecting your privacy. Not only do many websites collect information on you for advertising purposes, they also share or sell that information to third parties. 

Whether you’ve experienced a data breach or just want more control over your personal information, understanding the nature of online privacy is the first step to boosting your level of protection. Though the history of online privacy protection is as long and complex as the internet’s history, there are certain key facts you should know:

  1. Cookies jump-started the practice of data tracking

  2. The iPhone gave companies more data control

  3. Social media made privacy protection more difficult

  4. No single law enforces internet privacy protection

Consider how this information can help you make smarter choices about what you choose to share online. 

1. Cookies jump-started the practice of data tracking

Cookies are small text files that save information on your local web browser. Invented in 1994, cookies were designed to make online browsing easier, in part by auto-filling URLs and online forms. As technology has progressed, though, companies and individuals have started to use cookies to collect information on other people. 

Most websites today use a version of cookies called tracking cookies, which gather insights on your preferences, interests, and online habits, then send the information back to a server for analysis. According to a 2018 survey from Arm Treasure Data, 52% of consumers think there should be no reason for companies to collect their personal information. 

Unfortunately, many websites store users’ cookies without their knowledge or consent. They then use the information gathered from cookies to create digital personas, send targeted ads, and curate the content you see online. 

2. The iPhone gave companies more data control

Before people could access the internet on their phones, online privacy protection applied only to desktop computer use. When the first version of the iPhone launched in 2007, though, millions of people could go online whenever and wherever they wanted. The ability to send emails, conduct research, and shop from a phone gave users a newfound feeling of freedom, but it also reduced individual privacy.  

As smartphones have continued to advance, people spend more and more time connected to the internet on their phones. Simple activities like browsing the web and perusing social media increase the amount of time companies have to track your digital activity. 

Mobile apps pose a particular challenge. When you download and use an app, you may have to give the app permission to access information on your phone, like your location or photos. Granting apps access to certain information can be helpful, but many apps demand permission to see your personal information even when you’re not using the app. That makes it difficult to trust that companies are using your information responsibly. In fact, a 2018 report from The New York Times discovered more than 25 companies that said they sell users’ location information to businesses for targeted marketing purposes. 

3. Social media made privacy protection more difficult

Social media has single-handedly created a sharing culture, which, in turn, has complicated the issue of online privacy protection. When Facebook came onto the scene in 2004, the platform had one million users, but today, a whopping 68% of all U.S. adults use the site, according to 2018 research from Pew Research Center. What’s more, 74% of those people visit the site at least once a day. 

Most people know that sharing personal information on social media can limit your privacy, but even passively browsing social media can affect your privacy levels. Even if you don’t share anything, you still have to contend with companies monitoring your online behavior. Thanks to data tracking, companies can discover your preferences, interests, and habits based on what you “like,” click, or comment on. 

Plus, the more social media accounts you have, the more opportunities companies have to follow your online activity. Complicated privacy settings and confusing opt-in policies on social media platforms can also diminish your privacy. 

4. No single law enforces internet privacy protection

As data tracking and breaches become more commonplace, consumers are expressing growing concern about the lack of mandated privacy protection online. In a 2018 survey from IBM, 78% of U.S. respondents said a company’s ability to keep their personal information private is extremely important. 

Federal and state governments are taking strides to protect users’ internet privacy, but there is still no single law that offers users comprehensive privacy protection. Instead, consumers have to rely on a combination of many different laws, each of which has limits. Here are some of the most impactful internet privacy protection laws throughout history:

  • The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (1986): The ECPA was put into effect to better protect individuals’ private information during wire and oral communications. It was later amended to include electronic communications, like email and social media messaging. Companies and government organizations can access certain communication records with a subpoena, special court, order, or search warrant. 

  • Financial Services Modernization Act (1999): Also called the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, this law requires financial institutions to protect the information they collect, to disclose to customers their information-sharing practices, and to give customers the option to opt-out of having their information shared with third parties. 

  • Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (2012): First created in 1998 and amended in 2012, this law requires websites to obtain parental consent before collecting or disclosing personal information on minors under the age of 13. It also requires websites to write a privacy policy, limit the personal information they collect, and take steps to safeguard that information. 

  • General Data Protection Regulation (2016): This EU law forces companies to comply with certain privacy protection regulations to protect users’ data privacy. Under the law, users can request access to the information a company has on them, revoke a company’s access to that information, and choose whether or not their private information becomes public, among other things. 

  • California Consumer Privacy Act (2018): Set to take effect in 2020, this new law gives California residents the right to control the information companies gather on them. Under the regulation, users can hold businesses responsible for protecting their information, and tell businesses not to share or sell their personal information. 

Online privacy protection is always changing

Like the internet, the history of online privacy protection is still developing. But one thing is certain: The definition of internet privacy is broad and fluid. Companies, internet service providers, lawmakers, and consumers alike all have different ideas about what online privacy means and how we can best protect ourselves. 
In an ideal world, you should be able to trust the companies you share your information with. But until that happens, we want to help you protect your personal information. Instead of giving up on the internet or resigning yourself to less privacy, take matters into your own hands. With FigLeaf, you can choose your level of privacy protection wherever you go online.

Author: FigLeaf Team