Drawing on diverse theoretical and methodological approaches, this special issue takes a fresh look at the various aspects of the messy gridlock of privacy practices from the user and the producer perspectives. On the one hand, we aim to advance privacy research at the individual level in terms of scope, typology, and implications. On the other hand, we advocate for greater attention to one of the most important, yet still underdeveloped, lines of inquiry in privacy research: the perspective of producers such as governments, corporations, and tech startups, especially looking at how corporations and entrepreneurs design and develop their privacy policies, practices, and strategies. Together, these articles have numerous implications for policy makers, industry, and community practitioners.
At the 2018 World Economic Forum, German’s chancellor Angela Merkel stated, “Data will be the raw material of the 21st Century—the question ‘who owns that data?’ will decide whether democracy, the participatory social model and economic prosperity can be combined” (Chu, 2018). As data become the new oil of the 21st century, commercial use of personal data has become the core business model of many technology firms and the administrative use of private data an integral part of all levels of governance and national and international security. The ongoing Cambridge Analytica scandal and its aftermaths have drawn tremendous attention to privacy issues and current data management practices at corporate giants such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter. The lack of transparency, accountability, and regulatory frameworks have increased privacy concerns of citizens and shown the significant work ahead toward developing much needed regulations (Yang, Quan-Haase, & Rannenberg, 2016).
The seven articles in this special issue represent a range of theoretical and methodological approaches surveying the changing landscape of privacy practices from both user and producer perspectives in the United States, Canada, and Hong Kong. Two of the seven articles focus on the producer perspective, while the remainder five articles examine privacy from an individual perspective. Together, the articles advance our understanding of privacy broadly and specifically show the need for both user and producer perspectives. A growing number of individuals around the globe use digital media technologies for information, communication, work, and entertainment. Digital media are the devices (e.g., computers, tablets, and mobile phones) and applications (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, and Skype) used to access, produce, consume, and exchange information in a digital form, especially for supporting social interactions and finding information (Quan-Haase, Wellman, & Zhang, in press). It is thus understandable that many studies have centered on the patterns, causes, and consequences of privacy practices from the perspective of individual users. Much of the scholarly literature has examined how a user’s gender, education, or digital skills have affected their privacy management. This literature has also looked at psychological, cultural, and contextual factors at the individual level that may affect privacy decisions and attitudes. Individual-level analysis clearly offer extremely valuable insights on the implications of individuals’ psychological and demographic attributes and interpersonal relationships for their privacy concerns, calculations, and tactics. Yet individual-level examinations often provide limited understanding about the power of state and corporate actors in how users’ data are collected, used, and shared. After all, individual users, if not organized through advocacy groups or social movements, may have limited influence on national or international privacy regulations as well as on corporate policies and practices. Textual analysis of privacy laws, regulations, and policies tend to miss the interactions among a web of actors in the negotiation of privacy as a key social contract that redefines the boundary of the public and the private. That is, privacy is a social negotiation among various actors and as such privacy research needs to examine how these various actors come together to understand privacy.
Without discounting the importance of privacy research at the individual level, we argue in this special issue that it is equally important, if not more important, to take into account the producer perspective. Privacy and data management involve a web of multiple stakeholders in a complicated data ecosystem, which includes individual users, corporations, governments, policy makers, and nongovernmental organizations. One of the most important yet still underdeveloped lines of inquiry in privacy research is the perspective of producers such as governments, corporations, and tech startups. For example, often simply vilified or treated as a uniform entity without much to contribute to the debate, technology firms and startups deserve greater and more nuanced attention in the privacy scholarly literature. As a result, we do not know much about the producer’s perspective, that is, how businesses and entrepreneurs design and develop their privacy policies, practices, and strategies.