Privacy rights are controversial in communication processes and entail varying levels of disclosure of sensitive personal information. What constitutes such personal information and how it should be accessed and used by various actors in a particular communicative exchange tends to be dependent on the situation at hand. And yet, many would argue that a baseline level of privacy should be expected by individuals as part of maintaining human integrity and personal control over information disclosure. Different frameworks exist for thinking about privacy as a right, and these frameworks further suggest different mechanisms for the control of information and the protection of privacy rights in changing communication environments. For example, the main shift in communication processes from the pre-Internet era to a networked world has brought with it renewed debates over the regulation of privacy rights. How would privacy rights be evoked in the face of rapidly changing technologies for networked surveillance, biometric identification, and geolocation? And moreover, how would these rights be applied differently to distinct populations based on class, nationality, race, gender, and age? These questions form the core of what is at stake in conceptions of privacy rights in contemporary communication.
Media technologies are at the heart of media studies in communication and critical cultural studies. They have been studied in too many ways to count and from a wide variety of perspectives. Yet fundamental questions about media technologies—their nature, their scope, their power, and their place within larger social, historical, and cultural processes—are often approached by communication and critical cultural scholars only indirectly. A survey of 20th- and 21st-century approaches to media technologies shows communication and critical cultural scholars working from, for, or against “deterministic” accounts of the relationship between media technologies and social life through “social constructivist” understandings to “networked” accounts where media technologies are seen embedding and embedded within socio-material structures, practices, and processes. Recent work on algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and platforms, together with their manifestations in the products and services of monopolistic corporations like Facebook and Google, has led to new concerns about the totalizing power of digital media over culture and society.
Political economy approaches examine the power relations that comprise the production, distribution, and exchange of resources. They are distinguished from economics by a deeper concern for history, the social totality, moral philosophy, and praxis. Numerous schools of thought mark the political economy approach including early conservative, communitarian, and Marxian perspectives. Today, neoconservative, institutional, neo-Marxian, feminist, environmental, and social movement based approaches offer a wide variety of political economies. Communication scholars have drawn on political economy approaches to carry out research on media technologies, including broadcasting, telecommunications, and computer communication. In doing so they have developed distinctive geographic perspectives covering North America, Europe, and the less developed world. Political economy approaches are built on specific philosophical assumptions including a range of epistemologies that, on one end of a continuum, accept the reality of both concepts and observations and, at the other, claim that all explanations can be reduced to one essential cause, such as the economy or culture. Political economy approaches also range from perspectives that emphasize social change, social processes, and social relations to those that focus on social structures and institutions. Political economy approaches tend to concentrate on three processes that make up the main starting points for political economy research on media technologies. Commodification is the process of transforming things valued for their use into marketable products that are valued for what they can bring in exchange. This can be seen, for example, in the process of turning a story that friends tell one another into a film or a book to be sold in the marketplace. Spatialization is the process of overcoming the constraints of geographical space with media and technologies. For example, social media surmounts distance by bringing images of world events to every part of the globe and companies use media technologies, now often comprised of cloud computing, big data analytics, the Internet of Things, and telecommunications networks, to build global supply chains. Finally, structuration is the process of creating social relations, mainly those organized around social class, gender, and race. With respect to social class, political economy approaches describe how access to the mass media and new communication technologies is influenced by inequalities in income and wealth, which enable some to afford access and others to be left out. Political economy approaches are evolving in response to challenges from cultural studies approaches. Political economies of media technologies are now placing greater emphasis on international communication, on communication history, on standpoints of resistance, on new media technologies, and on new media activism.