Privacy and a useful Internet don’t have to be mutually exclusive

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Illustration by John Marsland

Last month news broke that Spotify had inserted a number of ambiguous clauses into its revised Terms & Conditions that, if agreed to, essentially granted it unfettered access to your private life via your smartphone. As you can imagine, when ‘The Internet’ got wind of this, it had a bit of a collective meltdown. Twitter and Reddit exploded with reports of how Spotify would now be able to thieve your most embarrassing photos, prank dial everyone in your contacts, figure out your location and how quickly you got there and even integrate with Facebook to find out exactly how many hours you spend at work playing Candy Crush Saga… Oh, the horror.

As quickly as this controversy arose, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek stepped in just as speedily and plastered the word “Sorry” in huge letters across the top of their homepage. Underneath, he went on to explain in some detail about his company’s commitment to privacy and how their need to access functions like your microphone and contacts (amongst other things) was purely so they could enable in-app voice control and help you find friends who also use Spotify. It was a rather dull but necessary reasoning of why they did what they did. But what it most clearly revealed is that there is a serious lack of trust in tech companies from their users, who are ready to pounce at the first sign of something that might snoop on their Snapchats. And, conversely, those same tech companies are increasingly more and more guilty of not being anywhere near transparent enough about what information the need from you in order to make their products work.

I’m not saying that this is all a case of “why can’t we all just get along?” but it does seem like there is a need for us to revisit the fundamental lie that we enter into every time we click yes to “I have read and agree to the Terms & Conditions”. It’s not all doom and gloom, however, and there are a few sites out there fighting the good fight: like Pinterest and 500px who choose plain old English over lawyer-speak to explain their terms, or the Terms of Service; Didn’t Read (tosdr.org) project, who courageously trawl through the T&C’s of a number of high profile companies so you don’t have to, highlighting the important bits. But if we truly want to live in a world where the internet is as useful as it has the potential to be, we as users also need to be ready to relinquish a little control and quit believing that everyone is out to steal pictures of what we had for lunch or find out how many steps we walked last Tuesday.

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