Users of social media have little knowledge about data protection and surveillance and they are very skeptical about it. But alternatives such as non-commercial platforms are still rare. © pixabay, CCO Public Domain

The figures present a clear picture: almost 3.5 million Austrians are registered on Facebook, more than 1 million of them in the age group up to 26. According to a survey by the online agency Liechtenecker from 2014, a list of the most popular online networks shows WhatsApp and Google+ in second and third place. As Facebook announced recently, the 1 billion user mark was topped worldwide within a single day. The multi-year FWF-supported project Social Networking Sites in the Surveillance Society was carried out by a team from the Unified Theory of Information (UTI) Research Group led by Christian Fuchs. For the first time in the German-speaking area, the researchers polled the level of knowledge and the opinions of users of social media on the issues of surveillance and privacy. In the process, the media experts also studied how these aspects correlated with the users’ behaviour on the Internet. The researchers conducted their poll in 30 personal interviews and an online survey with 3,558 participants. The respondents were students in Austria with an average age of 25.

Knowledge gaps and scepticism

The results show that 70% of the respondents had little knowledge about data protection and surveillance. At the same time, almost all respondents (90%) profess to being very much or rather concerned about their privacy. This tallies with the results of current European-wide surveys. 84% are very critical or critical of surveillance. “Here we have a paradoxical situation: the users are critical and concerned about violations of privacy, but have hardly any knowledge of what is done with their data”, says Christian Fuchs, who is a Professor of Social Media at the University of Westminster. The problem resides in the fact that surveillance is largely invisible and conducted surreptitiously. This had also emerged in the context of the information revealed by Edward Snowden, explains Fuchs. “The public had no clue that secret services were conducting mass surveillance of the Internet in cooperation with communication companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft or Apple and private security firms.” The argument that mass surveillance can prevent terrorism and crime could lead to an erosion of civic rights, warns the researcher.

Hardly any alternative social media

Data protection provisions leave little leeway for users of social media, and alternatives such as non-commercial platforms are still rare, although users are clearly in favour of institutional and material support for the development of alternative options. In addition, they would like to see more binding legal rules, requiring, for instance, the prior approval of the user through what is called an opt-in process for personalised advertising. This opens up a field of complex issues: international companies such as Facebook and Google benefit enormously from advertising revenue, but do not pay taxes in Europe, a situation that has come in for criticism in recent years.

More regulation and discourse

Christian Fuchs suggests taxation levels based on the share of users in given countries. “But that would need a coordinated approach to taxes on the part of the EU”, emphasises Fuchs. In general he feels that advertising, including personalised online advertising, could be subject to more taxation. The revenue from such taxes, which could be dubbed a “participative media fee”, could then be invested in non-commercial projects. The UK, taking a first step, introduced the so-called “Google Tax” in 2014. The experts are convinced that if legal provisions and alternatives to commercial platforms are to become reality, a broad-based public debate is required. Internet platforms created by civil society and based on public law entities should generally be strengthened. At any rate, there is a desire for alternatives, as the study shows.

Personal details Prof. Christian Fuchs is the director of the Communication and Media Research Institute at the University of Westminster, UK. He is the editor of the open access journal tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique and an executive board-member of the European Sociological Association (ESA). His fields of expertise are social theory and critical theory, political economy of media, communication, information, technology as well as Internet & society.


The FWF Project Social Networking Sites in the Surveillance Society, which was conducted from 2010 until 2014, has given rise to a number of publications. Please visit the project website for an overview an open access articles:
Books recently published by the research team:
Thomas Allmer: ”Critical Theory and Social Media”, Routledge 2015 Sebastian Sevignani: ”Privacy and Capitalism in the Age of Social Media”, Routledge 2015

> Media Enquiries