Why Trading Privacy for 'Free' Web Services Must End

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COMMENTARY

Meta recently offered its customers in the European Union the choice between paying for privacy or consenting to tracking, a model some people are calling "pay or OK." This sparked an investigation, since privacy in the EU is defined as a consumer right. With the bipartisan federal privacy bill in the US gaining ground to similarly make consumer privacy a right at the federal level, Meta's new model could come under even more fire if the company implements it here.

But what is "pay or OK," and why does it matter? 

Understanding the Conflict

Meta's subscription model violates the principle of freely given consent by forcing users to choose one of just two options: paying a fee or consenting to tracking for personalized advertising. It's essentially a false choice, because Meta is making money off users' data one way or another, either through the subscription or by selling their information. Numerous privacy and consumer rights proponents have already criticized the move as an attempt to circumvent the European Union's stringent data protection laws by coercing users to agree to data tracking. 

The new model also allows Meta to sidestep the broad demand from privacy advocates for all such software platforms and services to install opt-out mechanisms. Technically, on Meta's various sites, there is an opt-out mechanism, but this new model manipulates consent dynamics by introducing financial incentives to sway user choices. Users might believe that they are "giving consent," when in reality they can only either financially support the platform or surrender their privacy rights. Ironic, considering that, according to Meta, the whole point of the subscription is supposedly to protect user privacy.

History has already shown how little users can trust Big Tech companies like Meta to protect consumer data. For example, Meta has had several major breaches over the past few years and several lawsuits related to misuse of consumer dataGoogle and Microsoft have both experienced similar accusations. Naturally, the security and privacy lapses have caused privacy advocates to question: Are these the companies you should be paying to protect your data? The answer for a constantly increasing number of consumers is: No. 

Steps for Consumer Protection

The evidence is clear: Big Tech won't protect users' data. Consumers are looking for other ways to defend themselves from data theft, and fortunately, new technologies and privacy developments have started to make this a lot easier. 

For starters: Use privacy-focused browsers. Some examples include Brave, Tor, and Firefox, all of which are known for prioritizing data privacy. These browsers often come with built-in features to block trackers and advertisements, reduce digital fingerprinting, and ensure more secure browsing.

Next are virtual private networks (VPNs). VPNs encrypt Internet traffic, which prevents other third parties, even your Internet service provider, from monitoring users' online activities. A reliable VPN can also mask a user's IP address. Normally, advertisers and other third parties use your IP address to track your activity and create a profile that is unique to that address. A VPN prevents that tracking, which enhances anonymity on the Web. 

Third, users should view and adjust their social media privacy settings on a regular basis. Social media platforms frequently update their policies and settings. Users should review their settings to control who sees their information, which data third parties have access to, and how their information is used for advertising.

Fourth, I suggest users actively manage and regularly delete unnecessary personal data stored online. A simple Internet search will show you that your name, and possibly your address, phone number, and tons of other information, is readily available on data broker websites — thanks to companies like Meta selling them all that data. Look for ways to opt out of these platforms. Consider setting social media accounts to be private or deleting old accounts that are no longer active. 

Finally, stay informed on consumer rights and data protection laws like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe or the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in the United States. These laws often grant users the right to access, correct, and delete personal data, along with the right to opt out of companies selling your info. Being informed lets users make educated decisions and take legal action if necessary.

Final Thoughts

Privacy regulators may or may not be able to counteract Meta's consent-or-pay ploy. But either way, the new subscription model points out the need for clearer and stricter regulations in the US, ones that prioritize consumer privacy and control of personal data rather than forcing users to choose between shelling out or giving up. Until then, consumers need to be aware of the privacy technologies, opt-out mechanisms, and choices that are readily available today.

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