How Private is Private?

[Ellie Marvin is a master’s student enrolled in the Digital Scholars reading group this semester.]

Today, I opened the Twitter app and was greeted with a small banner notifying me of upcoming changes to Twitter’s Terms and Conditions. An updated version of their terms will go into effect on January 1, 2020. I quickly dismissed the banner, swiping away to see the content I opened the app to see. After watching the most recent Digital Scholars webinar, however, I decided to investigate further.

During the webinar, Yuwei Lin discussed a recent project in which she asked her students to record themselves asking if people have read Terms and Conditions for many of the apps and devices they use every day. Unsurprisingly, most people confessed they had not read these often long and jargon-filled documents. Anais Nony later brought up the idea of the ubiquitous and deceptive “feeling of consent” which we tend to engage in as a society. We allow ourselves to feel as if we’ve consented to certain kinds of surveillance without fully considering the consequences and how far-reaching that surveillance may be. This blind and blissful ignorance lulls us into a false sense of feeling as though we have control over our data, despite rarely actually looking into where it goes and who owns it.

Twitter has historically been an important social media platform for the growth and development of digital humanities. Twitter is often used in a digital humanities context to spread important academic information, and also to rapidly and collaboratively disseminate and create knowledge. Since Twitter is such an important tool in my field, I feel compelled to use it—even if only to browse other users’ tweets—and should understand what data the app is tracking.

Thus, I decided to read Twitter’s new Terms and Conditions. The terms were easy to find and displayed in large text. There’s an air of openness to Twitter’s Terms and Conditions and its Privacy Policy. Twitter’s Privacy Policy boasts in a large font, “We believe you should always know what data we collect from you and how we use it, and that you should have meaningful control over both.” However, when one delves a bit deeper, it seems clear that there is, in fact, no real privacy on Twitter—which, I suppose, should not come as a shock.

I was a bit upset (yet, still not surprised) to learn about how much data Twitter takes from me and all of its users. I do not like that it claims absolutely no responsibility for content its users post or any fallout from that content. I also do not appreciate the fact that, while Twitter takes no responsibility for this content, it is also able to remove content. Not only that, but Twitter retains a “worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute” any content posted on their site. This is a scary thought and an unpleasant one to have to consider.

One nice thing about Twitter, I will say, is its openness about advertising and the data which it will receive. I discovered a page which each logged-in user can access. The page will show users what data Twitter has gathered from them and what kind of advertisements have been tailored to them. The best part about this feature is that users have the option to turn it off. At any point, I can decide I would not like to have targeted ads and can simply subscribe to the same ads every other generic Twitter use could see.

It seems obvious to me, having now read through Twitter’s rules, terms and conditions, and privacy policy that nothing on Twitter is either private or protected. Therefore, should digital humanists migrate to a new social media platform? Should we refrain from Twitter altogether in the search for something more private? Or is privacy simply a right which we have to allow ourselves to give up in order to engage with a global community?

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