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Companies back ‘open, private’ internet in face of Big Tech ‘surveillance capitalism’

The privacy pledge is designed to hold the signatories to put user privacy first and create an open internet.

By Ryan Morrison

A dozen tech companies have launched a new “privacy pledge” that calls for a more open, democratic and private internet. The group says this is an “alternative to surveillance capitalism” in an apparent jibe at tech giants that gather large amounts of data on users.

Companies behind the pledge say it is possible to operate tools without collecting personal data. (Photo by Brietformat/Shutterstock)

Signatories of the pledge include Proton, Neeva, Brave, and Tor Project, as well as start-ups, academics and advocacy groups. They hope it will help curb “regressive impacts on user privacy, freedom, and choice” imposed by Big Tech providers.

Signing the pledge commits the organisations to rebuild the internet based on the original ideals set out when it was launched. That is a democratic platform designed to facilitate the free exchange of information, open communication, and privacy for the individual.

It comes amid growing demand for increased privacy. A Digital Markets Authority report into data privacy earlier this year found that UK consumers had increased the amount of control they have over the data they share but would like more control, particularly online. The report found that 89% of consumers in the UK want more control over the information they share with companies.

The DMA report also found that consumers want greater transparency before sharing data, although that varies depending on age range, with 90% of those over 65 viewing transparency as vital before sharing data, with just 60% of 18-24-year-olds feeling the same way.

The authors of the pledge claim hundreds of millions of people have switched to “privacy-by-default” services. This is where a system includes choices for the user on how much personal data they are prepared to share – with the default set to the most privacy-friendly options.

Open internet plan can be a ‘shining light’

As well as a rise in consumer demand for greater privacy and transparency, governments around the world are also starting to introduce or investigate new privacy legislation that would limit how much information can be shared with advertisers and third parties, including new EU cookie rules.

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Andy Yen is founder and CEO of Proton, a provider of encrypted email services and one of the signatories of the pledge. He said the internet no longer works in the interests of the people using it.

“What was once a shining light for the free exchange of information, the democratisation of knowledge, has become a tool for the powerful,” Yen said. “Giant corporations routinely monetise our private lives while trying to sell us a false commitment to protect our privacy.” This includes the likes of Meta, Facebook’s parent company, and Google, a Proton spokesperson explained, which rely on collecting user data to support targeted advertising. Tech Monitor has contacted Meta and Google for a response.

Yen said another way is possible. “Companies, like those that have signed this pledge, are putting forward a private alternative to the status quo,” he explained. “By holding ourselves to higher ideals, we believe we can set an example to other innovators and offer users genuine privacy. By working together, we can return the internet to what it was supposed to be.”

The group haven’t endorsed any single public policy or tool, but presents a series of five “fundamental commitments” that it hopes will leave the internet more private and improve the data protection of users.

There are no plans to invite any of the Big Tech firms, including Google, Meta, Amazon or Apple to sign the pledge, rather they want to present a “united alternative to Big Tech that puts privacy first and where surveillance capitalism isn’t the default”.

The signatories call for an internet that is open and accessible to everyone, supports democratic values, protects the fundamental right to privacy, and ensures free access to information.

In a statement, the Tor Project said now was the right time to stand up to Big Tech and surveillance-based capitalism, arguing that tools don’t need to collect data to be useful, usable and profitable. “At The Tor Project, we build technology used by millions of people to stay private and anonymous online every day,” the statement said. “We know from experience that it’s possible to create respectful, privacy-by-design tools that people can depend on. Together, we can build a better internet.”

Matt Hatfield, campaigns director of OpenMedia, said organisations have to work together with the community to “stand up for privacy and create an internet that puts people first”.

Read more: UK government to set out AI regulation plan

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