You might want to think twice about streaming that “subversive” documentary about the Weather Underground on Netflix. If Republicans have their way, you just might end up on a watch list somewhere.
This week, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the 1988 Video Protection Privacy Act, which forbids movie rental companies from sharing or selling their customers’ viewing history. The Senate is expected to take up the amendment soon.
If this passes, what you watch on Netflix may soon become public information that your friends, employers, and even the government will have access to. Are you regretting streaming the latest Harold and Kumar yet? Or all those soft-porn chick-flicks?
Netflix favors the law change because it will help them branch into social media and connect Facebook customers to each other based on their similar tastes in films. Unmentioned by Netflix is the enormous profit-potential in selling your viewing history to advertisers who can target specific demographics based on your preference in movies. Also unmentioned by Netflix is just who else might get this information once it’s taken out of the privacy lockbox.
The current version of the amendment does include a provision requiring Netflix to get their customers’ consent before sharing their viewing history. That’s helpful to those of us who are aware of the online threats to our privacy. But the vast majority of Americans, especially younger generations of Americans, are completely unaware that their privacy is in danger when they plug into the Internet. And it’ll probably end up being part of those notorious “terms and conditions” that you check the “I agree” box for, just to get onto the site.
The recent fiasco with Instagram, and the ongoing privacy concerns with Facebook highlight how Americans willingly flock to social media without considering the consequences for their privacy or the value of anonymity. Today, we're sacrificing privacy for convenience and interconnection.
We enthusiastically post our locations, our pictures, and our personal information on social media networks, all of which are monitored by advertisers, future employers, and even law enforcement.
Your web experience is now carefully compiled and examined, so advertising can target you specifically. They've been collecting data on what websites you go to and what you search for on hundreds of websites and search engines – a blatant, but legal, violation of your individual privacy.
Online data collection is now multi-billion dollar industry.
This level of surveillance would have been horrifying to previous generations, including our Founding Fathers, who held privacy in the highest regard: they even enshrined that right in the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
Yet, in the 21st Century, we become conditioned to accept these invasions of our privacy as the new normal.
In fact, it's increasingly looking like the United States is one generation away from completely forgetting what privacy means. And the consequences of this will be tragic for democracy in our republic.
That’s because without privacy - without the ability to be anonymous – our ability to plan peaceful revolution or non-violent social change is radically scaled back. If big corporations or Big Brother are watching, then they can block or sabotage efforts before they even become public.
It’s no secret that a massive surveillance system has been constructed in America post-9/11. We know about the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. We know about Trapwire – a law enforcement tool that keeps track of our movements in major cities across the nation through closed circuit cameras, facial recognition software, and license plate readers.
And we know about the enormous spy center being built by the NSA in Utah that will house all the data collected by the NSA since 9/11 – including emails, phone calls, text messages, and perhaps now Netflix viewing history – all of it in one source so that it's easily analyzed.
The NSA can how hold the digital version of 500 quintillion pages of text. That's a lot of data.
But, here’s what’s most important to remember as our privacy goes by the wayside: Social change hinges on privacy, and, in some cases, even total privacy – anonymity.
This goes all the way back to the Boston Tea Party, when an anonymous activist known even to this day merely as Rusticus posted flyers around Boston that led directly to the Boston Tea Party. In today's America, Rusticus’ plans to vandalize the tea ships would have been exposed by the East India Company, and the Boston Tea Party shut down before it even started.
In today's America, people couldn't have "conspired" to overthrow unjust laws like slavery, Susan B. Anthony couldn’t have conspired with Elizabeth Cady Stanton to illegally vote, and Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks may have been stopped before they could move Civil Rights into the spotlight. We might even still be fighting wars in Vietnam and Iraq.
Sure, social media was a tremendous boost for both the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring to get people into the streets. But it was also a tremendous tool for law enforcement in both parts of the world to squash those same movements.
And tragically, the day may be near - indeed, it may already be here - when if you plan to protest the corporate takeover of our government, drone warfare, or indefinite detention, you'll find yourself in jail before you even get into the streets.
Remember what happened in Minnesota in 2008 before the Republican National Convention? Forty-eight hours before the convention was to begin, police kicked in the doors of and arrested six activists, along with detaining hundreds of others, who were planning to protest the RNC. The Bush Administration took them out before they could even publicly exercise their First Amendment right to speak out.
As our privacy rights are whittled away at like this, it’ll get more and more difficult – and more and more dangerous – to launch successful socially transformational movements because the powers-that-be, including the corporations or industries you may be protesting against, will know ahead of time what all your moves will be.
Yes, it's annoying to get ads online that reflect your previous search histories, or have an embarrassing picture of you posted on Facebook show up elsewhere. And it could be downright incriminating to have your Netflix viewing history put on display for all to see. But really, these privacy violations pale in comparison to removing anonymity from both private endeavors and political action. That’s an outright violation of democracy itself.
As people from Egypt to Burma to China will tell you, the fundamental ability of "we the people" to create social change and lead nonviolent revolutionary movements against unjust and oppressive forces is deeply in danger when a nation loses its privacy protections.
The fight for privacy will be one of the signature battles moving forward during these uncertain times in America. And without privacy - and the ability to remain anonymous - genuine democracy will never again flourish in the Land of the Free.