Is transparency the best norm for user privacy?

Discussions about how companies handle privacy are metadiscussions, because data use policies provide information about information, namely, how platforms collect, use and share it. It’s easy to come up with platitudes when operating in such an abstract realm. People like the catchy norm of “transparency.” It suggests that our dignitary ills are cured when we know how companies such as Facebook use the information about us that they hoard.

But transparency as a norm suffers from a hobbling flaw when put into practice — it is antithetical to the proprietary interests companies hold dear and which the law protects. At a fundamental level, the exploitation of big datasets is how most online social platforms make money. Granular knowledge about the user equals more targetedness of the ad. Targeted-er ads can be sold at a premium. The fact that a platform can collect so much information about a user is one thing. The method for the information’s use is another. It’s the face of the latter aspect into which transparency flies.

No company that has invested substantially in developing effective methods for utilizing its collected data is going to have an authentic incentive to lift the hood on its data-utilizing methods. The protection of the law of trade secrets would evaporate in any instance where a company were to do that.

Any reluctance to transparency on the part of the platform betrays this misalignment of incetives between platform and user. Calling on transparency as the norm will only exacerbate the misalignment. What people are actually looking for when they call for transparency are reasons to trust. The metadiscussion needs a new pathway to get to trust, because the path that transparency affords is, ironically, blocked.

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