Internet Power and Social Context: A Globalization Approach to Web Privacy Concerns

Article excerpt

Many observers in the United States relate the adoption of the Internet to a sense of erosion in domestic privacy and parental authority. Numerous books, academic articles, public opinion polls, and press reports (as well as solutions and regulations) alert Americans to the allegedly inescapable consequences of the introduction of an additional eye (ear/mouth) into the home's technological environment (Andrejevic, 2002; Cai & Gantz, 2000; Shapiro, 1998; Turow, 2001). The tone of inevitability underlying the discourse about Web privacy in the United States implies that these concerns also carry over into other societies as the Web spreads across the world. Yet, while seemingly the ultimate metaphor of globalization, the Web is experienced locally by individual users embedded in particular families, cultures, and politics. In what ways, then, do users' approaches to the Web derive from their "indigenous" cultural construction of the machine? Where do they draw on U.S. values and fears, as embedded in U.S. cultural and technological exports?

Our purpose here is to suggest a framework for answering these questions by constructing the Web's global and local faces as a dialogue that is anchored within transnational political and economic bearings. By situating a society's cultural and technological practices within broad political and economic parameters, we can identify global forces and local voices, and study the dynamics of their co-existence. As an exploratory foray using this approach, we present a comparative survey of U.S. and Israeli parents' attitudes toward the Web and Web privacy. The survey highlights the cultural specificity of information disclosure practices but suggests, at the same time, that global influences may be at work. As constituted, the data do not allow us to causally tie these complex patterns to particular extra-national influences. They do, however, help define the areas in which these influences might be fruitfully explored in future studies, and they point out the usefulness of bringing historical and geographical considerations to every level of Web research.

The Need for a Global System Perspective

Accounts of the global spread of the Web have tended to adopt two contrasting narratives. According to the first, technology's inherent features spark the same opportunities and challenges and so, the same concerns and meanings, for users around the world (for an elaboration, see Buckingham, 2000; Fischer, 1992). The alternative narrative insists that technology--both the hardware and the social meanings that are associated with it--is socially constructed (see MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999).

Works that adopt the first, essentialist/universalistic narrative, assume that technology affects people and societies in predictable and inevitable ways. Writing about privacy, for example, Garfinkle (2000) argues that "[t]echnology is not privacy neutral. The overwhelming tendency of technology is to out privacy. By its very nature, technology is intrusive" (p. 260). These works note that the Web's elementary hardware--computers, monitors, and network connections--can be seen everywhere one looks. The same holds true for the basic software--the browsers, search engines, chat rooms, and instant messaging systems that link millions of "surfers" worldwide. These works imply, therefore, that the whole world is exposed to essentially the same Web; and that effects, problems, and solutions inescapably derive from the technology, and are generalizable universally to virtually all locales. (see, for example, Cavoukian & Tapscott, 1997; for discussion, see Agre, 1997; Bennet & Grant, 1999.)

Relativist works, by contrast, suggest that although the telephone, radio, and television, for example, have distinctive technological features, the social meanings and controversies around these features developed over time through elaborate interactions among various constituencies, value systems, and regulatory regimes (Marvin, 1998; Rakow, 1992; Silverstone & Hirsch, 1992). …