With the development of mobile Internet, the world has entered a super connected digital era. This has created great convenience for human society and also brought unprecedented challenges to citizens’ basic rights, particularly the infringement of privacy rights (Fasterling, 2022). This essay aims to explore the protection of citizens’ privacy rights in the digital environment. It will mainly analyse the efforts of multiple parties to jointly establish a healthy digital ecosystem from the perspectives of citizen participation, corporate self-discipline, and governments. These parties need to engage in equal dialogues and cooperation, so as to reach consensus and establish a digital community that balances fairness, inclusiveness, and development.
The challenges of citizen privacy in the digital era
With the vigorous development of the Internet Plus, people’s lives have undergone tremendous changes. On the one hand, digital technology brings endless convenience to people, who can easily access various information and maintain contact with other people. On the other hand, personal privacy faces unprecedented threats and leakage risks. Due to the high degree of information fusion, anyone who works, studies, entertains, or socializes online may leave their digital footprint on different websites and applications, becoming a part of the massive data (Karppinen, 2017). According to Foucault’s theory of power relations, enterprises that master and utilise the data are in a position of power, while ordinary citizens are in a disadvantaged position and find it difficult to constrain corporate behaviours (Carpentier, 2007). The data is often collected on a large scale without the informed consent of users and used for commercial analysis, advertising targeting, and other purposes, which seriously infringes on citizens’ information autonomy. The multiple data leakage incidents that have emerged in recent years indicate that citizens’ digital rights are facing a huge threat.
Taking Facebook as an example, by tracking a user’s browsing footprint both inside and outside its website, it can draw a detailed portrait of the user’s social circle, interests, political tendencies, and accurately push advertisements based on this (Eye on Tech, 2021). The personal information provided by users far exceeds the scope they are aware of, which to some extent breaks the principle of fair dealing (Lunt & Livingstone, 2012). Faced with the growing privacy issues, the Australian public has expressed high concern about their rights in the digital environment. According to Goggin et al. (2016), 78% of Australian respondents would like to know how their data could be used by enterprises. Meanwhile, Carlson (2018) believed that the digital rights of indigenous peoples should be strengthened. Due to concerns about the leakage of personal information, some minority or vulnerable groups may choose to reduce their online speech, which in turn amplifies the proportion of negative content spread on social networks. Thus, strengthening citizens’ rights and discourse to gain their rightful position in the digital era has become an urgent need.
Figure 1: Digital rights
Supervision and participation of civil society
Civil society organisations and individuals play an indispensable role in supervising enterprises and promoting the healthy development of the digital environment. The individuals can take certain measures to combat privacy breaches, such as regularly cleaning cookies, carefully sharing personal information online, etc. (Carpentier, 2007). However, this is far from enough, and it also requires the supervisory power of civil society. Firstly, citizens can report applications that violate their privacy rights, and initiate rallies to call on enterprises to improve their data usage policies and oppose digital colonization. These supervisory forces can effectively constrain enterprises (Lievrouw et al., 2017). Secondly, vulnerable groups may also use digital media for “self-expression” to correct the bias of mainstream media towards them and strive for a voice (Carlson, 2018). This demonstrates citizens’ power to connect through digital links. Finally, citizens could also directly participate in the formulation of public policies by enterprises and governments, such as signing petitions, conducting social media voting, etc. (Flew et al., 2019). Such participation could drive decision-makers to pay more attention to public demands.
Figure 2: Digital decolonisation
Self-discipline and cooperative governance of enterprises
As an important force in the digital environment, Internet enterprises should strengthen privacy protection and respect user’ rights. According to the OECD’s (2001) participation model, enterprises should establish partnerships with users, governments, and the public to give relevant parties a voice and jointly develop privacy protection plans (Carpentier, 2007). If enterprises can spontaneously respect users, the public may also have more trust in them (Edelman, 2023). Specifically, enterprises can engage in self-restraint and establish partnerships with the public from the following aspects: Firstly, enterprises should involve users in the formulation of privacy policies, such as setting up channels for public feedback, opening decision-making processes, etc. This helps to enhance public trust in enterprises. Secondly, enterprises should establish a data usage approval mechanism to prevent user data from being used or sold at will. For sensitive data, deidentification and encryption techniques should also be adopted to ensure security. Finally, enterprises need to review algorithm recommendation systems to prevent the occurrence of “filtering bubble” effects and exclusion of minority groups (Fasterling, 2022). Algorithms should increase diversity of recommendations and create opportunities for more voices to be heard. If enterprises can self-regulate and collaborate with the public and the government, they may achieve a win-win situation in privacy protection work.
Figure 3: New existential fears emerge
Government regulation and legal protection
At the national level, the governments should enact laws to draw a red line for citizens’ digital rights. Some countries have introduced relevant laws. In 2018, the EU issued the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) to strengthen the protection of user data (Khan & Mer, 2023). This is a successful example of government and enterprise co-management. Singapore also enacted the ‘Personal Data Protection Act’ in 2021. The act safeguards the basic rights of citizens and also encourages enterprises to take on greater responsibilities. Thus, government regulation plays a positive role in protecting user privacy. Meanwhile, the government also needs to supervise the self-discipline of enterprises to ensure that they truly fulfill their commitments. For example, after a data security incident occurs, the government can intervene in the investigation and hold them accountable in accordance with the law (Gorwa, 2019). In addition, the use of data related to national security also requires government monitoring to prevent leaks.
Of course, when formulating laws, the governments should carefully weigh and prevent excessive restrictions on freedom of speech. Different countries and cultural backgrounds need to adopt suitable regulatory solutions (Karpinnen, 2017). But the basic principle is that the governments should maintain dialogues with citizens to jointly promote the development of the digital environment towards a more open and inclusive direction.
Maintaining digital rights requires continuous improvement
Digital rights are a dynamic system that requires continuous improvement. People need to engage in continuous discussions on more complex issues and be cautious in seeking common ground while reserving differences. For example, according to the harm principle, how to prevent interference with normal dissent expression while cracking down on fake news? How can algorithm recommendations balance propagation efficiency and diversity of ideas? How can criminal investigation data involving privacy be reasonably utilised? Hutchinson considered that “Social influencers and algorithmic media have also replicated the issue of activism” (Antonio et al., 2023). These issues require continuous exploration and equal dialogue among different parties. In the digital era, the legal framework for digital rights also requires international cooperation. The self-regulation commitments of multinational corporations should be implemented globally, rather than satisfying the requirements of individual countries (Gorwa, 2019).
In short, digital rights are a topic that requires the joint efforts of the international community. In this digital era with highly integrated information, individuals, enterprises, and governments should adopt an open and collaborative attitude, actively listen to different opinions, and strive to reach consensus, so as to make the cyberspace a digital community that benefits all citizens.
Protecting digital rights and personal privacy requires the joint efforts of individuals, enterprises, and governments. Citizens need to improve their privacy awareness and encourage decision-makers to listen to their voices. Enterprises need self-discipline and truly prioritise users’ digital rights. The governments need to carry out effective regulations to uphold basic values. In this process, sustained open dialogue and equal participation are crucial for building consensus, which helps build a fair, open, inclusive, and innovative digital world.
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