Privacy reform is important

Digital Rights Watch is an Australian organisation that advocates for privacy, democracy, fairness and freedom in a digital age. We take a human rights approach to digital policy. 

One of our objectives in talking about rights like privacy is to give them more expansive meaning, and advocate for privacy as a source of freedom. That it is about the right to explore your individuality without judgment, but also it is a collective right – the right to be part of a group without being surveilled. 

The data-driven internet economy is dangerous

The recent Optus data breach shows how dangerous it is to both require and allow companies to collect and hold vast amounts of personal information. 

Currently, corporate Australia is: 

  • Required by national security laws to hold significant amounts of sensitive data (for example, identifying information and metadata)
  • Permitted to be data gluttons, that is, take much more than they strictly need, and without being subject to the right to erasure. 

The Optus data breach has put people at risk of identity theft but also created significant risks for people with specific vulnerabilities, for example, survivors of family violence. This is one of the most significant breaches in Australian history, but it will certainly not be the last. Any company looking at the Optus breach and assuming it cannot happen to them is kidding itself. 

More generally, the data-driven economy – the commodification of our personal information for profit – has had negative effects not just on our sense of self, but also our democracy. Many digital platforms are hostile places for people and public debates. In large part, this is because the business model of these companies relies upon endless engagement. If you remain on a platform and engaged, you will share more personal information which will permit companies to better segment and micro-target you for advertising. This is the idea of surveillance capitalism, or ‘spying for profit.’

The motivation of ongoing engagement results in cultures of extremism. Content is rewarded by algorithms if it is polarising because it serves this motivation. This is true for both political content (including disinformation and extremist content) and other content that facilitates corporate exploitation of our vulnerabilities (including, for example, content that helps better tailor advertising by predatory industries like payday lenders and gambling companies).

For these reasons, two significant and broad problems in online spaces are first, the phenomenon of data-driven profitability, and second, that the governance of our online lives is largely overseen by mega corporations. 

Government responses to these problems to this must be meaningful 

This is not about denying the role of government that has contributed to this problem, either by failing to act or regulating in ways that fail to address the problem and sometimes even contribute to it.

Governments are as addicted to surveillance as tech companies. Australia leads the pack in terms of the number of national security laws passed in response to 9/11, we are now close to 100 different pieces of anti-terror legislation. Many require companies to hold mountains of information (like the metadata retention regime) and then put this data at risk by, for example, weakening encryption (like the Access and Assistance Act). 

Finally, government has largely ceded the online world to corporate interests. For example, chronic neglect of the public broadcaster has meant we have been denied the opportunity to experiment with community building and connection in publicly owned digital spaces. The current competition law regime also doesn’t serve to prevent monopolisation or restrict data sharing when companies merge. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission recently published a report arising from a lengthy inquiry into digital platforms. This has been a welcome initiative in this respect and privacy reform was one of the recommendations made by the ACCC. But the report is understandably largely focused on making markets work effectively, rather than creating rights respecting online spaces. There is plenty more that government could be doing in this latter respect. 

Digital rights, like privacy, have a critically important role to play in improving our online spaces

At Digital Rights Watch, we are interested in undermining the business model of surveillance capitalism and protecting everyone’s right to digital security. 

Privacy reform has a critically important role to play in addressing the problems created by surveillance capitalism because it strikes at the heart of the data extractivist business model. If we give people a meaningful right to privacy, platforms will have to find ways to make money other than through endless engagement (and the extremism it produces). It would also mean that companies would hold less data about us as individuals, which cannot be sold and on traded to other companies intent on manipulating us. 

Privacy reform also has significant potential to improve digital security, which is rarely talked about in the context of debates about national security. We are always told that law enforcement and intelligence agencies need more powers to do their job, or require companies to hold more information just in case an agency might need it in the future. But the other side of the equation – the risks to people’s right to digital security – are rarely considered. A data breach of the significance of Optus should never happen again, and the best way to protect data is to not have it. By strengthening our privacy regime, and advocating for data minimalism, we are better protecting our digital security.

The Optus data breach puts many millions of Australians in a terrible position, and we empathise. We need to use this moment to create a regulatory environment that won’t allow this to happen again. Privacy reform is now squarely on the table, which is excellent news. Such reform is more urgently needed than ever. 

We need to move the conversation beyond markets and consumers and towards a discussion about the need to have robust protection of rights. If we treat people as holders of rights – rather than data points to be manipulated and exploited, or users that can have their dignity trampled in the race for profit – we create the capacity to build online spaces for people to flourish. 

This blog post is adapted from a speech delivered by Digital Rights Watch Chair, Lizzie O’Shea, at a Digital Rights Watch privacy reform campaign briefing on 5 October 2022.