Photo credits: Domenico Loia via Unsplash
Facebook collects your data for its selfish practices. Instagram and TikTok promote FOMO and unhealthy beauty standards. Twitter is the equivalent of a mobocracy that promotes cancel culture. I’ve heard these sentiments before, and you have too. Even mainstream news sites implore you to delete your browsing history, spend less time on social media and prohibit your kids from using social media until high school. In an age where people want to be more informed about the companies that make their products, this is a great thing.
But there are two glaring issues. Despite mainstream news explaining the problems of big tech, do alternatives to big tech exist? And secondly, what laws do we enact on social media companies, and are there laws on big data that exist? Surprisingly, to both questions, the answer is yes. And we can use both of these answers to find a way forward to grant others more and more freedom for what they post and show on the web.
Big Tech has been receiving fire over the past several years, like when in 2021, a Congressional panel asked several companies the question of whether their algorithms enabled the 2021 Capitol riots to happen. In turn, people have expressed interest in alternative social media websites, if not stopping social media altogether. Users are also advocating for more regulation of Big Tech social media. But what options are out there? And what sites are ethical and what are not?
Here in the United States, we do have data protection laws but only two main ones: the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act — a law preventing the data collection of users under 13 — and the Communications Decency Act — a law protecting companies from responsibility for users. Obviously, there needs to be more laws controlling Big Tech companies’ surveillance. But are there models we can look up to?
Regarding laws, there are some countries who have enacted data protection laws for quite some time. For example, look at Switzerland, a country that just might have the best privacy protection laws in the world. The country has a law in place since 1992: the Federal Act on Data Protection, which grants citizens’ rights to data collection, third-party tracking and other forms of surveillance. Switzerland is also where Proton Mail, an email service focused on privacy, is based. On its website, Proton Mail explains why Switzerland is a good country to base a service in: “Switzerland also has a long history of privacy and security, dating back over a century, and its laws are much more protective of individual privacy rights.”
Notice that when you log into Proton Mail, it requires a fee to have stronger privacy features. This is likely because advertisers do not cover the cost or at least the entirety of it. In contrast, Gmail is free because the costs are paid by advertisers that excavate information about its users. Gmail users may sing the praises of Gmail, including its convenience and free cost. But Proton Mail users might tell them that sometimes you have to pay money to keep the website running, and Proton Mail at least grants you basic protections even with a free account.
While Proton Mail might be the alternative to Gmail you are looking for, it’s not the only website centered on more ethical website design. In fact, the Center for Humane Technology, known for its founders appearing on the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” has compiled the ever-expanding “Awesome Humane Tech” GitHub list. These are websites approved by the organization as being focused on improving the web cyberspace in some way: through data privacy, user health or alternative social media.
Some influencers might tell you that these alternatives offer too much control to its users, or they promote bad graphic design. Or sometimes they say user convenience is king. However, the alternatives listed on the Center for Humane Technology’s GitHub page are listed there for a reason. Like Proton Mail, these websites may either have fees the user is expected to pay to have expanded features or require more work to use properly. They can be double-edged swords for users who are used to the free costs and convenience of Big Tech websites.
We have the option to have our voice heard. It is up to you to decide what kind of website you want: a free yet invading service or a protective but more expensive service. I can’t tell you what to choose, but you shouldn’t have an opinion over basic human rights. Privacy should be one of those basic human rights.
Emma Brennan is a Media and Culture major with a minor in Digital Marketing. EB976568@wcupa.edu