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AdvertisementOpinionSupported by We’re Not Going to Take It AnymoreWe’ve given up too much control over our digital lives. We need a law to take some of it back. By Ms. Swisher covers technology and is a contributing opinion writer. April 10, 2019ImageTwo decades ago, at the dawn of the internet age, in an era before smartphones, before apps, before all manner of devices that monitor everything from your car-hailing practices to your dating preferences, the Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy made a startling claim:“You have zero privacy anyway,” he said. “Get over it!”The in-your-face concept had the benefit of being completely prescient and even an understatement. We are now the most data-generating, most uploaded, most share-crazy humans in the history of the world, which means we are also the most monitored, the most data-chomped and, definitely, the most exposed.Our information — much of it private — is the rocket fuel of the ever-expanding internet. Our data keeps it humming along, even as tech companies abuse that data with increasing frequency.So here’s an idea: Maybe we refuse to get over it. Maybe we start to grok what we have become, and think harder about the trades we are making for the convenience we get from our gadgets. And maybe we put in place some rules — rules that have real teeth — on big tech companies.The question, of course, is what those rules should look like. Some argue the United States needs a hefty, multipronged national privacy bill that would include more stringent requirements for how tech giants run their platforms. (Some even think there should be a new agency to oversee the industry.) Others think that current law will suffice, with some tweaking including better enforcement and more money for the agencies already charged with regulating the tech sector, like the Federal Trade Commission.I would argue that we need both, and fast, before these data-hungry tech companies become even more enmeshed in our lives. Do you like the idea of A.I. comparing your facial expressions to a company’s top and bottom performers during a job interview? I don’t. Do you want cameras in every device in your home? I don’t. Do you want your television-watching linked to your search history linked to your buying data? No, thank you.I have said yes too many times before, thanks to the greatest tracking effort in the history of humanity that we facilitate every day by using a smartphone.Let me be clear — I love technology, including my deeply felt relationship with that iPhone that spans decades now. But it has never been more urgent to put up some guardrails. While I do not consider the behemoth tech companies monsters, they can and do act monstrously. You don’t have to be paranoid to realize that you are being followed, watched and crunched in ways that are breathtaking, and more than a little questionable. We need a national law to signal to these companies that the jig is up and that they need to stop abrogating their responsibilities to their users and to society itself — and I think it’s pretty inevitable we’ll get one in the next few years.Editors’ PicksAn Arabic-Speaking Talk-Show Host Wades Into Germany’s Culture WarsThe Week in BooksCasimir Pulaski, Polish Hero of the Revolutionary War, Was Most Likely Intersex, Researchers SayAdvertisementAt the same time, we don’t want to impose undue burdens on new start-ups or throttle innovation. That’s why I think it would be a mistake to overreact and crack down too hard, as Europe has done in some instances. Europe has put in place strict laws like the General Data Protection Regulation of 2018, the most significant change in privacy law in decades. It gives a lot of power to individuals over how their personal data is collected and used, and is much more punitive when it comes to data breaches. There are also ePrivacy rules there that govern how people can be targeted by advertisers. Some regulations, like the exceedingly complex “right to be forgotten,” would slam right into free speech laws here in the United States. This week, for example, Britain proposed creating a far-reaching regulator to punish tech companies, including their individual executives, for damaging content on their platforms.Europe’s message to big tech is increasingly clear: You made this mess, so you clean it up, or else.This punitive and suspicious sentiment had already jumped the Atlantic — all the way across to the Pacific — with California passing its Consumer Privacy Act last year. Less stringent than the General Data Protection Regulation (and criticized by some for being too soft), it makes California-based companies follow stronger data protection rules, including giving the state’s consumers more insight and power over how their data is used and imposing fines when tech platforms don’t comply. The law will go into effect in 2020, and there may be further additions to it. There are also privacy bills in play in at least 10 other states, so we are off and running to a confusing patchwork of laws. We need a more unified approach, because right now, our privacy regulation looks like a goat rodeo.We have to figure this out now, because more privacy-threatening technologies — such as artificial intelligence, 5G, quantum computing, automation, robotics, self-driving cars and above all, facial recognition — are all part of the next wave of innovation. How the tech giants share data with each other will also be an issue, because the ecosystem is increasingly intertwined.Sign Up for The Privacy Project NewsletterAs technology advances, will it continue to blur the lines between public and private? Explore what’s at stake and what you can do about it.* Captcha is incomplete. Please try again.Thank you for subscribingYou can also view our other newsletters or visit your account to opt out or manage email preferences.An error has occurred. Please try again later.You are already subscribed to this email.View all New York Times newsletters.There are some countries that have gone far beyond what Americans would be comfortable with, China being the most aggressive. Beijing has created a surveillance economy that makes our current privacy issues seem trivial. The last thing we want is to get into a race over which country can better stalk its citizens. But we also need to ensure that the version of the internet that was invented in the United States — one based on a principle of openness — is the one that should prevail.Given how much is headed our way, I called Mr. McNealy to ask him if he felt the same about privacy as he did in 1999.He said the harvesting of data was unlikely to get any less invasive and noted that the information that is collected about us is like a “digital tattoo” that is impossible to expunge. Nonetheless, Mr. McNealy is not a fan of government regulation. He said that a federal privacy law would be a mistake because it would hinder innovation, and cautioned that the costs of compliance would hurt small companies.He also said that there are still enough alternatives to allow consumers to escape being hostages of Google or Facebook or Amazon, and that if people are concerned about those companies’ data collection, they are free to stop using their platforms. “There is nothing to be done about it but consumer choice,” he said.Besides, Mr. McNealy said, much of the data that is being collected is not actually that dangerous. “Amazon knows that I buy toilet paper, but who cares if it is data that does not matter?” he asked.But at some point, I argued, it does matter. What happens if these companies go too far, and who is to decide how that data is meshed and mixed with other data? Mr. McNealy insisted that current laws, bolstered by antitrust action, should remedy any abuses.“There are plenty of laws to deal with it if, say, Google is reading my email” without permission, he said. “And if these companies do abuse their power by advantaging other parts of their businesses, then regulators ought to have long, hard conversation with them.” Until then, according to the Cassandra of privacy? “I can live without Google, so it does not bother me,” he said.In other words, get over it? I don’t intend to, and I don’t think anyone else should, either. While we may have zero privacy, it doesn’t mean that we have given up our right to control our digital selves. In fact, as tech marches on, that might be the one right that needs to be protected most of all.Follow @privacyproject on Twitter and The New York Times Opinion Section on Facebook and Instagram.glossary replacer

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