Anti-privacy giants want you to surrender hope. Don't give up without a fight

Right now there’s less reason than ever to believe the battle for data privacy is lost

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published February 20, 2024 12:00PM (EST)

Spraying graffiti on security camera (Getty Images/Westend61)
Spraying graffiti on security camera (Getty Images/Westend61)

I’m often guilty of it myself. Letting defeat creep in when I see all of us getting stomped on by tech-enabled jackboots in an unregulated corporate panopticon. Even heeding the spectrum of privilege on which we each sit closer or further from the brunt of the surveillance state, it’s still hard not to be exhausted into apathy by the seemingly inescapable data-gaze of internet billionaires. The jötunn of Silicon Mountain hurl down cold, hard lobbying cash and seem to bury every pro-privacy bill we can muster — it’s hard, then, not to feel hopeless about digital rights, privacy and freedom of speech. 

But our hopelessness — and the surrender it inevitably yields — is what those metaphorical frost giants want most from us. It’s been called “Privacy Nihilism.” Those who profit at the expense of our privacy, by abusing public infrastructure and dodging corporate taxes, want us fooled into thinking we’ve already lost. It’s easier to sell us new data-Hoovering tchotchkes if we’re already so dejected that the steady social-media drip of dopamine micro-hits is the only thing letting us forget about the feds staring back from the other side of every screen. 

Well, too damn bad. This ain’t over until we say it is. And right now there’s less reason than ever to believe the battle for data privacy is lost. Just ask the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the dozens of privacy-focused advocacy organizations for digital rights. 

“Sometimes people respond to privacy dangers by comparing them to sci-fi dystopias. But be honest: most science fiction dystopias still scare the heck out of us because they are much, much more invasive of privacy than the world we live in,” the EFF’s Jason Kelley reminds us in a recent essay

The EFF has grown leaps and bounds in the past decade, according to Kelley. He points out that, while its work involves rallying for causes on a federal level also, a good deal of the successes it’s seen have involved putting easily accessed tools and browser extensions like Privacy Badger in the hands tens of millions of people. Practical moves, person-to-person, can win too.

“For starters, remember that none of us are fighting alone,” Kelley writes, adding that the organization “has over 30,000 dues-paying members who support that fight — not to mention hundreds of thousands of supporters subscribed to our email lists and social media feeds. Millions of people read EFF’s website each year, and tens of millions use the tools we’ve made.”

In the smug faces of the world’s monopolists, spite will often get you back on your feet and throwing punches when even hope feels too frail.

Kelley also draws on another critical reason not to abandon legislative efforts: they’re working. And he’s right. The California Consumer Privacy Act, the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, and the growing body of state regulations aimed at health-sensitive and kid-focused data protections — these laws may be imperfect and fall short of national goals, but they’ve forced watered-down federal legislation off the stage and simultaneously raised the bar. 

And it’s not just U.S. interests in this fight. A paper from Open Future breaks down the needs and aims of the growing movement toward an open internet in Europe, untangling corporate bias from the privacy protections in European Union policy.

“In 2024, the next European Commission’s mandate will give an important opportunity for the EU to frame a new vision for what could become the future of the European Open Internet agenda,” writes author Clément Perarnaud, “[The report] contributes to the emerging body of work, supported in part by the Open Future Foundation, aiming at re-imagining the internet and building infrastructures for the public good.”

Among the paper’s policy goals are some familiar themes to state-side advocacy organizations and grassroots lobbying groups — like strengthening encryption, and ditching privately controlled internet traffic hubs for publicly maintained ones to reduce corporate interference with free-flowing information. 

“It is commonly admitted that the policy approach of the EU in relation to the digital economy, and more broadly to the internet, can have a great impact worldwide,” Perarnaud writes. “The much-commented on ‘Brussels Effect’ popularized by Anu Bradford is a testimony to the fact that EU norms can have a significant influence well beyond European borders.” 

But if you're still feeling hopeless, I understand. And maybe you don't actually need it. Hear me out: Some days, when hope isn’t enough to keep your spirits up, you have to turn to the harder stuff. And I don’t mean whiskey. I’m talking about pure spite. In the smug faces of the world’s monopolists, spite will often get you back on your feet and throwing punches when even hope feels too frail. For me, there’s one thing in particular that fuels my sense of spite.  

To coercively surveil a people is not just an unconstitutional attack on their privacy, but an assault on their human dignity

It’s not just the fact that it’s been more than a decade since we discovered the Fourth Amendment had been gutted by a massive domestic spying operation. It’s not just the way the Department of Homeland Security undermines the effectiveness of Sanctuary State laws. Nor is it just the secret courts givings the feds warrants for data you didn’t even know was being collected on you. In fact, it’s not any one particular bad actor or corporate attack which fuels my spite, but the affront which underlies the whole: It’s the humiliation of it all. 

Privacy is dignity. To coercively surveil a people is not just an unconstitutional attack on their privacy, but an assault on their human dignity. It’s a degradation of the spirit through psychological terrorism. And to be treated like digital livestock by companies, skillfully herding the public into social media click-farms, is perhaps the most insulting humiliation of all.

There’s reason to hope, yes. There are wins on the table. There are growing calls for action and allies in the movement. The war is not yet over — no matter what the billionaires say. But I’m staying in this one not just because I have hope for our rights to dignity, privacy and free speech. I’m staying in it for the satisfaction of knowing that if the jötunn ever do fall, I’ll have lent my hand to hurl them down to our level from the heights of Silicon Mountain.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in Salon's Lab Notes, a weekly newsletter from our Science & Health team.

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at 


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