Larry Flynt on the New Surveillance State

As I have said before [most recently here], I oppose government and corporate surveillance of what American citizens do online.

In his short opinion piece for the Huffington Post, Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, he looks at the problem from another angle. He warns against the already present reality of no personal privacy as a result of the corporate erosion of what that means. However, the part that caught my attention was his observation, “The Feds have no problem letting companies collect and exploit our personal information because it makes running a surveillance state that much easier to do. Whenever the government wants to find out what weird shit you’re up to on the Internet, guess what ­they’re going to find out?” The corporate data miners have that data, and it is only a subpoena away.

The right’s attack on what freedom of speech means, particularly their view that free isn’t free, concerns me. How might the awesome archives of today play into the hands of overzealous leaders in the future? The persistence of digital data and archiving means that what corporations, much less the government, are doing could be perverted into something rather frightening.

We as a people have to adhere to the principles of free speech and protect the rights of one another under those principles. This means that we have to elect people to government who do not allow warrantless wiretapping by the NSA. We need to let our leaders know that we want better privacy laws to protect us, because we cannot rely on corporations, who owe us nothing, to “do the right thing” and respect the privacy of their customers.

This idea of customers in the 21st century is an important thing to consider in regards to corporations. Take Facebook, for example. As “users” of Facebook, we are not customers. Facebook’s customers are people who want to purchase information about its users and sell advertising on the Facebook website. Users are made into a commodity, and the commoditization takes the form of personal information that we are only too willing to share. Facebook takes that information in exchange for the use of their service, which itself creates pools of data that they can in turn sell. On top of their customers, however, the corporate leaders are beholden to its investors. Facebook is privately held, but each stake holder obviously demands the maximization of profits over other concerns, such as those of users as long as they can maintain a user base that in turn maximizes profit. It is a balancing act for those who want to commoditize people and their privacy, but as evidenced by the status quo, people are willing to allow a lot of commoditization and data gathering without jumping ship.

What might Facebook mean for the future of privacy? Mark Zuckerberg has gone on the record that we should not have an expectation of privacy any longer here, and his sister, Randi, wants Internet anonymity to go away according to what she said here. Mark Zuckerberg says that Facebook adjusts to the wants and needs of its users, and he believes that the trend is toward less privacy. However, as Marshall Kirkpatrick points out at the link above, Facebook is an agent in these changes, and it could be that Zuckerberg is attempting to control the discourse on this issue. Rather than admitting Facebook’s complicity and its actions against privacy, it is far better to make people think that Facebook isn’t the bad guy here when in fact it is one of many bad guys.

We have to use these digital tools to take back this discourse and we also have to use the law to enforce the rights of individuals over the privileges of corporations. Then, maybe, we won’t worry so much that someone is looking over our shoulder at the “weird shit” that we do online.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Computers, Rights, Technology
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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