MSNBC reporter Bob Sullivan has a blog called “The Red Tape Chronicles,” which is described on its sidebar as such:
Corporate sneakiness. Government waste. Technology run amok. Outright scams. The Red Tape Chronicles is MSNBC.com’s effort to unmask these 21st Century headaches and offer real solutions that save you time and money.
Bob Sullivan covers Internet scams and consumer fraud for MSNBC.com. He is the winner of multiple journalism awards for his coverage of online crime and author of Gotcha Capitalism: How Hidden Fees Rip You Off Every Day and What You Can Do About It. and Your Evil Twin: Behind the Identity Theft Epidemic.
This is pretty interesting, and I’ll get further into an excellent post from the blog in a moment, but I want to focus for a minute on his framing of these issues. Those of us who spend much of our lives online are by now pretty well acquainted with the various outrageousnesses of absurd DRM, hostile EULAs, abusive ToSes, malware, spyware, Microsoft security holes, goatse.cx and all the other shocking and awful things the Internet has to offer. And, on balance, we have a pretty good idea how to avoid the worst of the worst – set up a secondary or tertiary e-mail for mailing lists, always make sure to un-click the boxes when agreeing to ToSes, never use Outlook, never look at the screen when a friend says, “Hey, look at this!”, etc.
But for those who aren’t digital natives, these new problems present a double whammy that’s particularly hard to process. Basically, in addition to being sinister in and of themselves, the very names and terms used in the presentation of the problem are in a crazy moonman language. “DRM”, “EULA”, “ToS” – even when you break them down from geekspeak into “digital rights management,” “end user license agreement,” and “terms of service” are obfuscatory by nature. So your average Internet consumer – and at this point, given ever-more-universal access, the low-information, non-digital-native is the average Internet consumer – is befuddled and unsettled as a first principle, before even beginning to think about the nature of the threats. I think this accounts for a lot of the media sensationalism on various Internet security and privacy issues – as is often the case with other sorts of news, it’s not even clear to me that reporters (themselves often low-information, non-digital-native Internet consumers) understand the basic nature of the problems/conflicts/challenges involved in what they’re reporting.
And so, back to Sullivan. What he’s doing here is very clever – he’s presenting the threats and annoyances of our digital culture in terms that non-digital natives can understand. When he references, “Corporate sneakiness. Government waste. Technology run amok. Outright scams.”, these are powerful pre-existing narratives in American life. We love complaining about sneaky corporations, wasteful government, stampeding technological progress, and shysters, and have loved doing so for as long as there’s been a United States. So not only does he circumvent confusing and stress-inducing technobabble, by harnessing these narratives he establishes not only how people should think about these issues but how they should feel about them. Just like that, n00bs become staunch online privacy advocates.
Having established a more comfortable frame for his audience to understand these issues, Sullivan then proceeds on a series of “How To” posts for modern living; the post on data collection is particularly instructive. He sets up a commensensical approach, mentioning circumstances we all face:
The questions are all too familiar, and all too intimate:
“Can I see your driver’s license?”
“Can I have your phone number?”
“Do you have another form of ID?”
But how do you answer? It seems that to shop is to be interviewed. Everywhere you go, you are asked invasive questions. And every time you look at the news, you see another company is losing consumers’ data.
So you would probably rather not answer those kinds of questions, but can you say “no”?
Yes, say legal experts. In fact, sometimes of those questions are against the law or violate credit card association terms and conditions.
Of course, if you refuse to provide the requested information, a company can refuse to do business with you. Sticking up for yourself is almost certain to lead to a small scene at the store, something I call “data bickering.” And since it seems like everyone asks questions like these all the time, it’s not practical advice to “just say no.” But it helps if you can say, “I know my rights.”
This mirrors directly something I’ve written about in a slightly different context and in slightly more geeky terms, but the bottom line is the same – consumers are at a power disadvantage. My preferred solution is to strengthen and make more explicit legal protections and correct the power dynamic between corporation and citizen, but as Sullivan goes on to show, citizens currently do have substantial rights in this regard, which he lays out in a simple, three-part action plan (which I urge you to read in its entirety):
1. TELL THEM THEY ARE BREAKING CREDIT CARD RULES
2. ASK IF THEY TAKE OUT THE TRASH
3. TELL THEM THEY ARE BREAKING THE LAW
Pretty easy, and fits right in with the sort of pissed-off customer that Americans might say they don’t like being, but most secretly relish playing. Especially when they’ve got the rules and the law (not to mention common sense) on their side.
Sullivan then closes with a populist call to action and inclusion:
Share your data self-defense stories
It doesn’t have to be that way. When asked for data, just say “no” – at least initially. If you’re told you will have to leave the store or medical office, then you’ll have to make a choice, and often you will decide to surrender the information. But before you do, put up a bit of a fight. The more you complain, the more uncomfortable you make a clerk or a company, the more you’ll make the folks at headquarters reconsider their need to know everything about you.
Have you made a scene when asked to divulge personal information? What has worked for you? Share your stories of privacy self-defense with other Red Tape Chronicles readers.
Great stuff, and exactly the sort of re-framing and broadening of the message and appeal that’s necessary to increase awareness of these issues and, eventually, push forward a popular mandate for the necessary reforms.