Privacy Rights are Civil Rights

Blog Post
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Aug. 14, 2019

Whether you’re applying to a new job, finding a place to live, or staying in touch with loved ones, people increasingly rely on the internet for basic everyday needs. But as we hand over our personal information to companies in exchange for access to these services, we shouldn’t have to lose our privacy in the bargain. Protecting privacy is especially important for marginalized communities, who are disproportionately harmed by the exploitation of personal information enabled by inadequate privacy protections.

Online discrimination through commercial data practices is a persistent problem, and it is vital that we treat individual privacy not as a personal luxury, but as a civil right. Problematic data practices disproportionately affect people of color—especially Black and Brown communities—women, immigrants, religious minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, low-income individuals, and other marginalized communities. These groups have endured voter suppression, digital redlining, discriminatory policing, retail discrimination, digital inequity, white supremacy, personal danger, and more—outcomes that policymakers can no longer ignore. Without civil rights protections adapted for the twenty-first century, discriminatory commercial data practices will continue to have long-lasting, severe consequences.

To create effective privacy legislation, policymakers must ensure that companies’ data practices don’t violate individuals’ civil rights. As New America’s Open Technology Institute and Color of Change detail in a new report, the stakes are particularly high for marginalized communities in five areas: employment discrimination, housing discrimination, disproportionate surveillance, socioeconomic inequality, and personal safety.

To curtail these extensive harms, perspectives from disproportionately impacted communities must be well-represented in the policy debate. Additionally, individuals need access to multiple avenues of redress when commercial data practices violate their privacy and civil rights.

Several federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, are already empowered to enforce existing civil rights statutes. Individuals’ privacy and civil rights would be better protected if the Federal Trade Commission, too, were empowered with rulemaking authority. Additionally, Congress must ensure that privacy laws include strong civil rights protections, preserve the ability of states to play a vital role in protecting civil rights and consumer privacy, and contain a private right of action for individuals and advocates to hold companies accountable when privacy and civil rights are violated.

Privacy rights are civil rights, but our civil rights protections have not caught up to the digital economy. Though we have a number of federal civil rights statutes that can protect individuals belonging to certain protected classes from unjust treatment by traditional institutions, these laws don’t sufficiently protect against the novel forms of discrimination flourishing in the digital realm. As the fight for civil rights grapples with the threats posed by data and technology, these developments are making it more challenging to enforce civil rights laws. Broader policy changes are needed to resolve the ambiguities around applying civil rights laws to these twenty-first century means of discrimination. Otherwise, individuals, especially members of marginalized communities, will continue to face discrimination online.