We use major social media sites as a way to stay connected, have up to the minute updates on our friends, families, coworkers, acquaintances, or even to stay informed on current events. What’s even more convenient is these websites are free. However, just because these website services don’t put a dent in our wallets, doesn’t mean that they don’t come at a cost.

What many people are unaware of is that the information we share on the internet is being monitored and collected just as much as the data we don’t readily share. Data mining is a multibillion dollar industry dedicated to collecting and tracking people’s personal information to be sold for profit. In essence, the government and companies cooperate together and function as business partners to benefit from data mining. Government programs like the NSA, work with data broker companies and marketing firms to collect sensitive information from monitoring internet searches, internet activity, online purchases, social media profiles etc. What’s most concerning is that all of this is being done with relatively no oversight, without our consent, without our knowledge a lot of the time. Why is this being done in secret?

However, if someone tries to dispute this or try to file a lawsuit, companies could say that we did consent to it. They might defend that because we signed and agreed to the user terms and agreement form, we consented to this sort of activity. But the agreement form is problematic in itself. The average user sees a long user agreement form with extremely small font and will usually skip through it, scroll right down to the bottom, check off “I agree” and move on with their lives. I mean, who honestly has the time to read through every user agreement/terms and conditions form from each site we use, every time it changes?

After watching the documentary “Terms and Conditions May Apply” on Netflix, my opinion on completely changed. I began to question, are these privacy user agreements made to be vague and lengthy and non-user friendly on purpose? Do they purposely make them unattractive to users so that we won’t know what we are actually agreeing to? By using some of these sites and clicking “I agree” on these user terms and conditions agreements, we sign off on a lot more than we think we do. When we check off “I agree” we have to surrender certain privacy rights and give up some of our personal information in order to be able to use these website’s services. It’s a total trade off.

I listened to a podcast on PBS about “How to Protect Yourself and Your Online Data” which talked about how part of the problem is that people don’t necessarily have great alternatives to these free web services, so they feel as if they have no other choice. We use free social media services like facebook and linkedin for their convenience. We feel coerced to hit “I agree” because not using the service has become more inconvenient than using it. One of the speakers mentioned that there needs to be alternatives and a clear ability to be able to opt out of these services so people can choose a service that doesn’t track and collect personal information. More importantly, people need to be totally aware of what’s happening so that they can opt out. Having these options and information available to citizens is what makes a functional democracy. Because information is power and what good is a democracy without options?

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