Reflections on Technology, Consent, Privacy, and Digital Storytelling as a Kid of Immigrants and a Woman of Colour
I was in tenth grade when I came across a Facebook note that was titled something along the lines of “35 THINGS ONLY KIDS WITH ASIAN PARENTS WILL UNDERSTAND”. It was, in some ways, a mid-2000s, early prototype of a Buzzfeed listicle.
I can’t remember the specifics, but I do remember that among the list were statements like, “Your family only orders water and no dessert when you eat out at restaurants,” “your dad wears white socks with stripes with his outdoor sandals,” and “all your family friends are aunties and uncles and you’re never quite sure whether they are related to you.” I devoured the list, and by the time I was finished reading, I was giddy with excitement—so much so that I even showed the list to my parents: we aren’t the only ones! I exclaimed, pointing enthusiastically at our clunky desktop screen. Maybe it was the byproduct of being one of a small handful of racialized kids in an otherwise white town, but I had assumed many of my family’s idiosyncrasies were unique to us, rather than some collective experience shared with other Chinese Canadians. In an era before media conversations on race were commonplace, before there was Code Switch on NPR, before there were dedicated online communities for people of colour; in an era where I felt a deep, internalized shame of my Chinese identity, this little note on the internet brought a feeling that was new, foreign, and strangely calming. Many years later, I realize that this feeling was one that I still crave in adulthood: feeling seen.
This high school anecdote in many ways foreshadowed my future relationship with the web, particularly as a woman of colour. Over the last decade, I’ve watched the internet evolve into a refuge for finding community, for feeling understood and supported, and for being my full self. Twitter has been fundamental to my political education; Facebook groups have connected me to the Asian diaspora; Instagram has become a critical outlet for emotionally processing life events. I’ve released stories into the world and have gotten emails back saying “this resonates.” We’re living in an age where media-makers and activists increasingly reliant on an online presence. We use social media to build an audience, to project our voices, to propel social movements, and to connect and learn from those who are not like us.
Lately though, I can’t help but worry that I am trading my privacy and safety for a sense of community online. I used to think that worrying about digital security made me sound like my mother—excessively paranoid about the ever vague and dangerous “cloud”—but the reality is the internet is a spooky, omnipresent yet unassuming entity. Increasingly, I wonder: How permanent is the content we share online, and what are some of the unintended consequences of sharing this information? In our hopes to build community through the web, how do the stories and images we share affect the people we love—or even just the people we know? Do we have as much agency as we think we have when we share content on the internet? This is the context we live in: servers house intimate data about our lives, interests, and whereabouts that we exchange for convenience and access to apps and services. Facebook can let advertisers know which teen users “feel worthless.” And perhaps most frighteningly, we live in an age where most information that is uploaded online is most likely archived, searchable, and findable forever online. Just last month, I had to jump through hoops to prevent an outdated resume from showing up in a Google search; Squarespace still stored it somewhere on their server, even though I deleted it from my website more than a year ago.
Copyright Law in the Digital Age: Who owns the rights over our online images?
In her book, The Internet of Garbage, Sarah Jeong highlights a relationship between copyright law, safety, and harassment on the internet that isn’t immediately obvious to many online users. We might assume that if we see an image of ourselves that we don’t like, or that is being used towards our harassment, online, that we have the right to request its removal. But it can be extremely difficult to remove harmful online content that contains your image when someone else holds the copyright. Jeong discusses Garcia vs Google, a controversial copyright case where actress Cindy Lee Garcia fought to have a video of her removed from YouTube after anti-islamic content was dubbed over a clip she was tricked into acting in, causing her to receive death threats and fear for her safety. Jeong explains that many traditional copyright scholars argued that her request was in fact, legally unfounded: the fact that she appeared in the film shouldn’t have given her copyright or the authority to request the content’s removal. Copyright law is not built to address harassment or safety.
Another troubling example is the recent digitization of On Our Backs, a lesbian erotica print magazine dating back to the 1980s. In 2016, the indie zine was scanned and released on the internet under a Creative Commons open license—meaning that anyone could legally re-use and re-mix the magazine’s content to create new material. Creative Commons licenses operate under a ‘sharing is caring’ ethos, and for the most part the licenses do awesome things like letting creative works be circulated more widely, making sure content creators are credited, and allowing people to legally build and expand off the work of others. However, in a series of blog posts, Tara Robertson outlines the ethical ramifications of this digitization and open licensing: models in this magazine only consented to having their photos used in an indie zine circulated in print for a niche audience. This is something fundamentally different than agreeing to have your body displayed online for anyone to “remix” and “reuse” in their own content.
What struck me most about both of these cases was the control people lose over digital images of themselves once they have been uploaded, regardless of whether these images were properly consented to be released on the internet in the first place—regardless of whether these images put them in danger.
Consensual Digital Storytelling
I recently read Building Consentful Tech, a zine by Una Lee and Dann Toliver, which tackles some questions around autonomy and control over our what they call “digital bodies.” The zine defines a digital body as “pieces of personal data” scattered throughout the internet. Our data can be so many things: our locations and travel times tracked by Uber, our search and browsing histories on Google, and the words we use frequently in our Facebook posts. Building Consentful Tech prompts tech creators, such as app and platform developers, to reflect on how they can give users more agency and information on how (and whether) they share their personal data. Although I don’t consider myself someone who “creates” tech products, the zine also asks users of technology to protect each other and hold our communities accountable when it comes to digital security and privacy. This prompted me to think beyond autonomy over my own digital body, and reflect more deeply on how I have responsibility over the data of others when I share content online.
As a writer, I feel compelled to explore themes around intergenerational love, around how loss and loneliness can manifest in Chinese Canadian families. This means I’ve often opted to reflect on family and to write about the people who are closest to me: my parents, grandparents, and extended relatives. In a media landscape where narratives are dominated by white voices, it feels important—and at times, even necessary—to take up space, to have our stories heard and seen.
Thinking about consent when it comes to this kind of storytelling online brings me a significant degree of discomfort and cognitive dissonance. For instance, my grandmother only has vague understandings of the internet, so could there really be anything wrong with sharing a photo of her on my social media with a written reflection on family, memories, and grief? This is something, surely, many millennial storytellers have done? But my ninety-year-old grandmother doesn’t know her image is being shared with hundreds of my Facebook friends she has never met. I’m not sure if she could even fathom the scale at which her image is being seen. It sounds bizarre at best and unethical at worst when stated so plainly. I can’t even imagine trying to explain this to her in my broken Cantonese, but I already know the answer: I don’t have her permission.
I want to share my grandmothers’ moments of joy and sadness; I want to reflect on the struggles of our intergenerational, intercultural relationship. But I wonder if, in my attempts to humanize her to an online audience, I am taking away her agency and ownership over her digital identity.
Practical Tips for Existing on the Internet
Lately, I’ve been doing more reading on how to have greater control over my online privacy and digital identity. There are a lot of resources out there, and I’m just starting to learn, but I encourage others to join me, especially media makers, journalists, community organizers and activists who are at increased risk of facing digital attacks. Digital harassment will always disproportionately affect women, people of colour, queer, trans, and non-binary folks. And as Sarah Jeong points out in The Internet of Garbage, while mainstream media coverage of digital harassment covers the experience of white women, the experiences of online abuse are almost guaranteed to be exacerbated when folks are oppressed at multiple intersections. So—while we can’t free ourselves from trolls or online verbal harassment, we can minimize the likelihood of being hacked, doxxed, or surveilled. We can also be more mindful of the power we have over other people’s images and information.
Here are a few first steps you can take. Consider taking a closer look at your digital shadow. Ask yourself: Where are you leaving data about yourself when you use your phone or log online? What can people find out about you on the internet? Realizing the sheer immensity of personal data that was contained in my public social media, I recently activated TweetDelete, a service that deletes all your Tweets before a given time period (somewhat horrifyingly, I deleted over 3000). I’m also working through the data detox kit by Tactical Tech. This week-long toolkit contains daily exercises that walk you through upping your social media privacy, limiting data sharing on your phone and online accounts, finding out what information shows up about you on Google, and limiting online corporate surveillance (e.g. by downloading a browser extension that disables invisible spying and activity trackers). And finally, beyond protecting your own data, I challenge you (and myself) to continue thinking about the power you hold over the data of others: to ask for permission when sharing images or potentially personally identifying information about others online—and if you’re not comfortable doing so, to reflect on why.
I love the part of this interview with QPOC tech activists Tania Lee and Slammer that discusses the intentional choices we need to make in order to balance finding community online and improving our digital security:
“Instagram is a place where I’ve built up confidence in myself and what I look like…When you’re queer, when you’re a person of color, when you’re a Black woman, when you’re genderqueer—[there are] physical standards of beauty you don’t meet in a certain way. Putting yourself out there and having people heart you is amazing. That to me is tied to my personal security.”
And this is what I’m learning, slowly: that it’s still possible to have community online, to share my stories and feel seen—but to also mindfully draw boundaries to protect my own digital identity and respect the privacy of others.