Laptop and smartphone digital privacy and security concept.
Credit: Tero Vesalainen / Shutterstock
Barth Keck

The digital world has encountered a few newsworthy events recently that could profoundly affect our online experiences.

The Connecticut House of Representatives gave final passage last week to “SB 6: An Act Concerning Personal Data Privacy and Online Monitoring.” The bill, which passed by an overwhelming 144-5 margin, gives state residents “more control of and access to the personal data collected about them by companies on the Internet.”

The bill is similar to those in other states, including California, Colorado, and Virginia, wrote CT News Junkie’s Hugh McQuaid, giving consumers “the right to view or delete data and opt out of its sale or targeted advertising. It requires certain companies to disclose and minimize the data they collect. The legislation also restricts targeted advertising to children and sale of their data.”

Sonnet — To the Digital Life
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee with a love I’ll never lose
Since I’m online. I love thee with utmost
Smiles and tears of life; and, if Elon choose,
I shall but love thee better when I post.
–with apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Also last week, Elon Musk’s offer of $44 billion to buy Twitter was accepted by its board.

“The outspoken Tesla CEO has said he wanted to own and privatize Twitter because he thinks it’s not living up to its potential as a platform for free speech,” reported PBS NewsHour. “Musk said in a joint statement with Twitter that he wants to make the service ‘better than ever’ with new features while getting rid of automated ‘spam’ accounts and making its algorithms open to the public to increase trust.”

Great news! The digital age continues to improve by the day! Or does it?

If we look a bit closer, these developments appear more like a “good news/bad news” scenario. First the good news.

Connecticut’s pending internet privacy bill “goes beyond existing state privacy laws” by limiting facial recognition technology, according to Keir Lamont of the Future of Privacy Forum, an advocacy group promoting privacy protection. Still, adds Lamont, “A federal privacy law remains necessary to ensure that all Americans are guaranteed strong, baseline protections for the processing of their personal information.”

Connecticut’s law is at least a move in the right direction. That’s the good news.

Now for the bad news: Multibillionaire Musk’s purchase of Twitter with its 400 million users. Tech writer Charlie Warzel outlined three possible outcomes for Twitter under Musk’s influence – none very appealing – and it was this quote that caught my eye: 

“When it comes to content moderation, Elon Musk doesn’t know what he’s talking about. A number of the changes that Musk has suggested are things Twitter has already attempted to do, or even implemented. I strongly believe that Musk has thought about Twitter as a service only as it relates to his user experience – which is, to say the least, a unique one.”

Warzel explains that Musk’s vision could result in a Twitter that reverts back to 2016 when “blatant, vile harassment used to go almost unchecked.” This is merely supposition, of course. But “free speech” be damned; even a small step back to that cruel place is positively frightening.

Jillian York, author of Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism, said, “I think that Musk’s conception of free expression is both contradictory and foolish. Absolutism on a platform like Twitter fails to take into account the very real harms that Twitter can cause as a global platform, for instance being used by malicious actors like Isis and rightwing extremists.”

In other words, “Platforms like Twitter are a completely different animal and you’re talking about somebody’s ability to ruin someone’s life in an instant.”

Case in point: Hours after his Twitter deal was announced, Musk engaged in a Twitter conversation that included one participant calling Twitter’s legal head, Vijaya Gadde, the “top censorship advocate.” A “pile-on” ensued, according to The Guardian: “Comments included calls for her to lose her job and, in a typical example of unpleasant digital hyperbole, statements that Gadde would ‘go down in history as an appalling person.’”

Anyone can fall victim to character assassination on Twitter. After one individual, whom I do not know, complimented a recent op-ed I posted on Twitter, I was included in a number of hateful tweets, the least offensive of which said this: “Barth is a communist cultist as well. His only true concern is brainwashing our nations [sic] youth.”

Trust me, I can handle such insults (and worse) from anonymous trolls. But as Jillian York suggests, if this is the type of “free speech” that Musk’s Twitter facilitates and expands, I see nothing productive about it. Indeed, the algorithms in such an environment will only increase the polarizing power of an already ultra-polarizing social-media platform, even if Musk does “open them to the public to increase trust.”

Good news and bad news. The digital age is filled with both. If only we could see more news like Connecticut’s privacy protection bill, the scales just might tip in the “good” direction.

I’m not holding my breath.

Barth Keck is in his 32nd year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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