Leslie Knope, the plucky public servant at the center of the NBC comedy "Parks and Recreation," just finished battling a data-mining tech company. But even though the current season is set in the near future of 2017, the show reflects the online privacy debate already happening today.
(Warning, spoilers for ahead for the Jan. 27 episode of the show.)
Gryzzl, a comically exaggerated Frankenstein of the Facebooks, Googles and Amazons of the world, is initially a huge get for the small fictional Midwestern town of Pawnee, Ind., -- providing free wifi and gadgetry to residents in a local deal worked out at the end of last season. But in the first few episodes of this season, the tech company battles with Leslie over a parcel of local land where she wants to create a national park and the company wants to build a corporate campus.
Leslie finally thinks she's found a way to win that battle when residents get freaked out by the drone delivery of hyper-personalized gifts -- specially chosen for them by Gryzzl based on algorithms that search through the contents of the their private text messages and e-mails.
While the town is outraged, the main characters discover that Gryzzl's actions weren't illegal: They were buried in an addendum to an absurdly long user agreement. The citizens of Pawnee, much like nonfictional Americans, are largely on their own when it comes to legal data privacy protections.
But Leslie and her husband, Ben, take their case to the court of public opinion. No, seriously, they go on a court-themed local TV show.
There, Ben argues that what the company is doing with Pawnee citizens' private data may not technically be illegal, "but it's definitely not chill" -- a reference to the company's slogan, "Wouldn't it be tight if everyone was chill to each other?"
Gryzzl's CEO argues that the company is "hella chill" and that if Pawnee residents don't like what the company does, they don't have to use its services.
Ben's response to Gryzzl could just as easily apply to almost any tech company today:
The internet is no longer optional; it's a necessity for everyone. And I think that you do know that data-mining isn't chill because you stuck it into the 27th update of a 500-page user agreement. A person should not have to have an advanced law degree to avoid being taken advantage of by a multibillion-dollar company. You should be upfront about what you're doing and allow people the ability to opt out.
Ben and Leslie are the moral and ethical centers of the show -- and the fact that they get the often self-undermining residents of their town to generally agree that Gryzzl has gone too far is a testament to just how much the debate over online privacy has penetrated public consciousness.
According to the most recent Pew Research data, over 90 percent of American adults agree or strongly agree that consumers have lost control about how personal information is collected or used by companies. User agreements and terms of services are almost universally thought of as jokes, even if some companies are trying to make them easier to understand. It would literally take weeks for the average person to come close to reading the disclaimers for all the sites they visit and services they use.
Some 64 percent believe that the government should do more to regulate advertisers, per Pew. And the White House is said to be prepping comprehensive privacy legislation proposed by the president at a speech at the Federal Trade Commission during the run-up to the State of the Union address.
But in Pawnee, ultimately the faux-television court is stumped. Real Americans are, too. Even though they overwhelmingly seem to be concerned with the digital panopticon that tracks them online -- and increasingly offline -- for advertising purposes, they also value the services that surveillance funds. Over half of respondents, 55 percent, told Pew they were willing to share some information about themselves with companies in exchange for free online services.
"Parks and Recreation" neatly resolves the whole conflict, including the disputed land, by the next episode. But in the real world, either our understanding of privacy or the economics of being online will ultimately have to change.