Privacy: awareness better than technology

This week I am at the Bled “Future of the Internet” conference, where the European Commission tries to coordinate efforts among the research projects they fund with the goal of positioning Europe as a leader in the definition and research of the Future Internet (or “Internet of the Future”, or whichever name people want to call it).

There was a good opening speech by Dr. Žiga Turk, Slovenian Minister of Growth, relating future developments in the Internet to past developments in human communication technologies. The message was clear and true, and I think it most importantly highlights that such developments take place with little planning. For this reason, I believe that specific efforts to develop a Future Internet are superfluous and most likely inefficient. The Internet (i.e., its technologies, applications, infrastructures, etc…) will surely evolve, independently of conferences like this one. It has evolved in the past few years and it is sure to continue to do so. Just like everything else that humans do.

In the second part of the the conference, a number of speakers presented different points of view for the Internet of the Future: artists, content, services, applications, privacy. When the floor was open for questions, the discussion was almost exclusively centered on “privacy”, sprinkled with the usual attack on Google citing that data storage in the U.S. is a problem.

Once again, overdone privacy concerns dominated the discussion. This is not right and it not useful discussion. Although the privacy concern is legitimate, the way to address it should be through awareness and education. People need to understand the implications of using technology with regards to information.

The buzzword “Web 2.0” is often defined as the “new” (current, anyways) Internet in which users are no longer mere spectators and passive readers, but they are also producers and providers of information into the Internet. Given this, we must keep in mind that human actions involve responsibility for those actions. Publishing information or using a service are examples of such actions, and must therefore be backed by people being responsible for what they publish or how they use those services. The best way for users to be protected is for them to be aware of what it means to share or publish information on the Internet. Protection technologies (for privacy protection, for instance) at the disposal of users will do no good at all if the user cannot understand the implications of their Internet usage.

Unfortunately, the main messages echoing in the press in (part of) the technology research community (in Europe, at least) focus on providing protection technologies for users, and devising legislation and controls on businesses to limit current business practices based on processing of users’ information.

This approach is wrong, and must be replaced by education and awareness programs for people to be aware of implications of Internet usage. In this way, users could avoid unfounded fear and avoid unnecessary risks.

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