Millennials Need To Take Ownership Of Their Online Footprint

Daniel Zolnikov | State Representative serving Montana’s 45th District.

I am a member of the Facebook generation. That is to say, that for the past 13 years, I have relied on the social media platform to keep me connected. I registered for Facebook during my senior year of high school in 2005. At that time, Facebook only accepted email addresses associated with a college or university domain, as the platform was only available to college age students.

Since then, Facebook has dramatically expanded and it has become one of the largest social media platforms in the world. With every new account created, Facebook collects—and potentially sells— all of your data and information.

The biggest change however, is Facebook’s introduction of commercial use through targeted advertisements. The platform is no longer simply driven by personal updates, status changes, and photographs. The utilization of big data has become a mainstream tool, used to increase the productivity of businesses. Companies have utilized big data to capture and process unprecedented amounts of personal information about consumers. This information is used to make better business decisions, identify new market trends and opportunities, and understand how to maximize profits from consumers like you.

Following the revelation that Facebook was mishandling and cavalierly distributing their user’s information, the protest #DeleteFacebook has spread across social media. These protestors submit that the information they post on Facebook belongs to them, and not the social media giant. Yet therein lies the ultimate question. Who owns this data about you? It appears as though the simplest answer is: not you.

It is important to differentiate the two types of companies that collect data. Edge providers are services that you as a consumer choose to use, such as Google, Facebook, Netflix and all apps. In the end, you make the decision to utilize and share your information with these entities. ISPs and Telecom companies, on the other hand, are used as gateways to the Internet and all our information flows through these gateways. Besides the option of not using the Internet or mobile services, consumers rarely have much choice when using these companies.   

Some edge providers such as Microsoft have led the field by allowing consumers to completely own their data. Google uses a hybrid model that profits off data, but allows users to delete their data. Others, such as Facebook, are lagging and have maintained practices of harvesting and re-selling consumer information without allowing consumers much—if any—rights over their data. And even with good policies, most of these companies are coerced into sharing your data with large government surveillance programs used by agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA).

With the rollback of the Federal Trade Commission’s Internet Privacy rules in 2017, internet service providers such as Time Warner and telecom companies such as Verizon are at the point of implementing policies that collect and retain all the information that goes through their services, including websites visited, apps used, location of device, time logged in, and messages sent and received. As opposed to Facebook just using the data you share, these companies will be able to create clear pictures of your complete Internet and telecom usage.

If you aren’t concerned yet, you should be. Companies make the argument that by obtaining your information, they are better able to market and serve you. If this was the case, why don’t they ask for your consent to collect first?

Legislation in place to protect your information is either entirely absent, or limited, and government agencies like the NSA are continuously collecting your information in massive amounts. You may have nothing to hide today, but as we have witnessed with recent immigration and gun efforts, that right may be something you rely on tomorrow.

Politicians in D.C. often pay lip service to large companies and their lobbyists by creating laws that do little to protect the consumer and instead prioritize and empower large corporations. Sometimes these laws lead to unintended consequences, but with a lack of action or concern by many individuals across the United States, the time may soon come when our rights are legislated away.

Your digital history is a limitless trove of your most personal information, from medical searches, to personal interests. No one can enter your house without permission or a warrant, so why are they able to track your digital footprint? Your data is your property, and no entity, business or agency should be able to collect your information without your consent or without the proper warrant.

While in the Montana state legislature, I have proposed and passed the most privacy laws in the nation, including creating warrant requirements for GPS location, devices, digital media, limiting license plate readers as well as passing the strongest freedom of the press bill in the nation protecting all digital communications of the press without exception.

Unless millennials start paying attention to how and where their data is being distributed, all of their information and intellectual property will continue to be taken. As the generation that is the most connected —yet the most dependent—on social media and Internet use, it is up to us to take a stand and require that our data is considered our personal property before our rights to privacy are snatched from under us.

Daniel Zolnikov is a third-term State Representative serving Montana’s 45th District. He addresses the opportunities and risks associated with new technologies. Forbes ranked him among the top “30 Under 30” policymakers in the nation, and Red Alert Politics recognized him as one of the country’s Top 30 Conservatives under the age of 30. Zolnikov received his undergraduate degrees from the University of Montana in Information Systems, Marketing, and Management, along with a minor in Political Science. Outside of the legislature, Daniel has worked as a small business consultant and is currently obtaining his MBA.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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