Et tu, PBS?

I’ve written regularly about online privacy issues, and readers of this blog know that I teach a course on the politics of privacy. I’ve more or less made my peace with where I leave my data trails and who is harvesting my personal information for material gain. But somehow I did not expect to have to make this kind of calculation for PBS.

I know PBS is a shadow of its former public self; it gets less and less funding from government agencies and more and more from corporations. “PBS” as a national broadcast network is really an aggregation of local stations, and those stations range from tiny and poor to large and influential. Even at the big, well-known stations, money is always tight and they are always looking for ways to get more.

[An aside: PBS is sometimes compared to the BBC. It shouldn’t be, because they are totally different in funding, organization, and cultural context. PBS has always, from its inception, been dependent on federal funding, and its shows are produced by private companies, by tieups between local stations and production companies, or both. It is not-for-profit and it has a stable of well-known public affairs shows, but it also has terrible infomercials and endless fundraising drives.]

In the olden days of online availability, some shows would be available for a brief period of time after their airdates (two weeks to a month), while other shows, mostly the “public affairs” shows like NewsHour, Frontline, etc., were available for much longer. All of them were free, and while you were strongly encouraged to identify your local PBS station, you didn’t have to set up an account or pay anything to stream what was available.

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Life without apps and other musings on productivity

It is no secret that I have a love-hate relationship with smartphones and always-connected technology. I developed and regularly teach a course on the politics of privacy in the digital age, and every year there is something new to add to the syllabus. Last year it was the Internet of Things (which continues to grow in importance). This year it’s backdoors for national security agencies, with the current Apple-FBI legal battle illustrating the larger problem. Although it’s impossible to use online resources and not sell your soul to one of the Big 5, I try to minimize my digital trail and encrypt communications where I can.

An aside: there is a story making the rounds about a USA Today reporter who supposedly had his email “hacked” (sniffed, actually, but everything is called hacking nowadays) when he was using inflight wifi. Aside from the fact that the guy who “hacked” his email was sitting right behind him (so he may have snooped the old-fashioned way, over his shoulder), this reporter was working on the Apple-FBI story using unencrypted email on an open wifi network. People, do not do this. Use a VPN if you use open wifi connections a lot, and for heaven’s sake, use email that comes with https at a minimum. Why a USA Today reporter is still using is beyond me. But I digress.

A couple of years ago I switched from a high-end smartphone to a feature phone, in part to understand the online opportunities for people who don’t have high-speed mobile broadband or can’t afford fancy smartphones, and in part to control my social media habit. I eventually went back to a smartphone, but I’ve regularly switched it out for a feature phone. (A feature phone is a phone which has data access for email and browsing, but doesn’t have the range of apps and mobile access that iOS, Android, and even WindowsPhone provide). Not only is life more peaceful, because your notifications go way, way down, but feature phones tend to be smaller and easier to carry around.

One result of my feature phone use is that I use very few apps, and I really don’t miss them. Aside from Twitter I’m not on any social media, I never played games much (Free Cell and Sudoku are about it in terms of video or phone games), and while I love to take photographs, I don’t get the allure of Instagram.

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What I’ve been teaching: Privacy

This spring I’ve been teaching a course on the politics of privacy. I first taught it as a summer school course two years ago, when I had half a dozen students and ran it as a seminar. It was a lot of fun, and I got to try out unfamiliar readings and unusual assignments. The following spring TheHusband taught it as a lecture course, and now this year it was my turn again (we plan to alternate).

It’s a pretty interdisciplinary syllabus. We start with sociological readings from the 1960s on the social construction of the self and the self in public, because you can’t understand the private sphere without thinking about the public sphere. The reading list includes everything from law articles and legal cases (including Romanceland’s own Carolyn Jewel) to economics articles to current EU, Canadian, and US statutes on privacy. And also Gawker and Reddit (yes, your tuition dollars are being spent on teachers who send their students off to read stories on Reddit. I’m sorry). We finish up by watching a couple of recent documentaries, 2014’s The Internet’s Own Boy (about Aaron Swartz) and CitizenFour (the 2015 Oscar winner about Eric Snowden, now on HBO, GO WATCH IT EVERYBODY).

I tell the students at the beginning of the class that teaching this class is in many ways a selfish act on my part. Those of you who followed my VM blog know that I’m very interested in the digital divide and uneven access to technology. My more than two decades online, especially the last decade and the explosion of social media, has made me think a lot about the intersection of technology and privacy. But as a certified member of The Olds, my take on these issues is very different from that of my students. Policies and laws are passed and implemented by people who are closer to my age than theirs, but they are the ones who have grown up in a connected world and will never have the option to leave it.

One of the truisms I see a lot in online discussions is that millenials “don’t worry about privacy.” That is not my experience at all. Some of them are blasé but many are not. Granted, I have a self-selected sample of millenials who are more likely to care about these issues. But even within this group, while attitudes vary about how much privacy they want or expect, they’re not ignorant about the benefits and drawbacks.

That said, they’re not always fully aware of how many ways privacy is not in their control, and one of the things I try to get across to them is an understanding of what kind of data are out there. They do an assignment they call “internet self-stalking,” in which they go to computers that they don’t usually use and surf via a variety of browsers to see how much information there is about them online, and where that information might have come from. Some of what they discover is expected, but other results are not. The students are often surprised by how much information is put online by other people. If they have commonplace names or share names with more famous people then they are safer, because their results will be lost among the rest. But if they have even slightly unusual names, they’ll show up.

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