As inhabitants of the Information Age, we are increasingly aware of the amount and kind of data that technology platforms collect on us. Far less publicized, however, is how much data news organizations collect on us as we read the news online and how they allow third parties to collect that personal data as well. A handful of studies by computer scientists reveal that, as a group, news websites are among the Internet’s worst offenders when it comes to tracking their visitors.
On the one hand, this surveillance is unsurprising. It is capitalism at work. The press’s business model has long been advertising-based. Yet, today this business model raises particular First Amendment concerns. The press, a named beneficiary of the First Amendment and a First Amendment institution, is gathering user reading history. This is a violation of what legal scholars call “intellectual privacy”—a right foundational to our First Amendment free speech rights.
And because of the perpetrator, this surveillance has the potential to cause far-reaching harms. Not only does it injure the individual reader or citizen, it injures society. News consumption helps each of us engage in the democratic process. It is, in fact, practically a prerequisite to our participation. Moreover, for an institution whose success is dependent on its readers’ trust, one that checks abuses of power, this surveillance seems like a special brand of betrayal.
Rather than an attack on journalists or journalism, this Essay is an attack on a particular press business model. It is also a call to grapple with it before the press faces greater public backlash. Originally given as the keynote for the Washburn Law Journal’s symposium, The Future of Cyber Speech, Media, and Privacy, this Essay argues for transforming and diversifying press business models and offers up other suggestions for minimizing the use of news as surveillance.
Washburn Law Journal (forthcoming).
Scholarly Commons Citation
Carroll, Erin C., "News as Surveillance" (2020). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 2215.