A few months ago I was happy to sit with a short clever summary of the essence of privacy by Cory Doctorow (this is not to say he was happy to sit with it too – just to say I found it shiny enough not to need to pursue the matter further):
This needed to be said, and I’ve never seen it said better:
You should care about privacy because privacy isn’t secrecy. I know what you do in the toilet, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to close the door when you go in the stall.
Today, however, this tweet came my way:
How do we define #privacy? Is privacy the ability to control with whom information gets shared? -@JulieBrillFTC #FOCAS14
This also seems a good approach, certainly at first sight anyhow.
But yesterday, Evgeny Morozov had already worried us thus:
The privacy debate, incapacitated by misplaced pragmatism, defines privacy as individual control over information flows. This treats users as if they exist in a world free of data-hungry insurance companies, banks, advertisers or government nudgers. Can we continue feigning such innocence?
He goes on to suggest:
A robust privacy debate should ask who needs our data and why, while proposing institutional arrangements for resisting the path offered by Silicon Valley. [...]
[...] The intellectual ping pong over privacy between corporate counsels and legal academics moonlighting as radicals always avoids the most basic question: why build the “private spaces” celebrated by Mr Zuckerberg if our freedom to behave there as we wish – and not as companies or states nudge us to – is so limited?
This, of course, widens the issue immensely: it can even lead us to question the fundamentals of the corporate manifestation of capitalism which dominates 21st century life. This morning I asked the following question:
The question we should be asking ourselves of 21st century revolution (oh,all right – “disruption”, if you prefer) runs as follows: >>
<< Is there enough spare resource in the world for people to create parallel spaces – or must the dispossessed dispossess the rich? >>
<< Answering this question will determine whether the revolution (oh, all right – “disruption”) is going to be humanely manageable or not.
Whilst the Zuckerbergs of the world (oh, all right – Facebook itself …) recommend (that is to say, like!!!) us to squabble over the crumbs and dregs that fall from their privacy tables, Morozov seems to be asserting that we should be much more ambitious.
Which brings me to the point of this post, after four hundred introductory words!
When we think about privacy, why not think as we do when we think about bullying? Why not have a multi-polar definition in much the same way? An example. I wrote this paragraph quite a bit ago now on the subject under discussion, and related matters:
The problem with being accused of racism is surely one of point of view. Let us take what I would argue is an analogous act of aggression. As far as I understand it (please correct me if I am wrong), bullying is defined in labour legislation as depending on the perception of the victim not the oppressor. If someone simply feels they have been bullied, this is enough justification in itself for an investigation of some kind to need to be carried out – whether the alleged oppressor intended to bully or not, this does not affect the significance of the event.
I then go on to apply the concept and approach to racism – an application you can read more about by reading the post in question, if you wish. But for the purposes of today’s post, I would apply it further to the subject of privacy. And it leads me to propose: let not there be one definition of something which invades a privacy or someone who feels invaded. Let, instead, that definition be a matter of point of view of those who feel the invasion.
To go back to Doctorow’s shiny conceptualisation: some of us don’t care if the door of the toilet is open; others greatly treasure their intimacy; and to others, the carelessness about such privacy is quite objectionable. As I point out towards the end of the post on bullying:
So it is that the racist, as well as the bully I’m sure we have all experienced, manages with an incredible precision to occupy simultaneously two miserable and quite contradictory positions in society: that of victim and oppressor both.
Yet we should not allow the horrible things such people succeed in doing to provoke a similar hatred or reaction in ourselves – for just as surely as the cruelty they exhibit to others is a sign of a brutalising upbringing, so our response to their resulting brutality can only serve to define how uncivilising was ours.
There are two ways of dealing with racism and bullying: a) outright rejection and a terrible shunning or b) a generous engagement and a never-ending instinct to education.
I know which process I would prefer to be a part of. Have you considered which one most closely resembles your own?
If the envelope of what we should be allowed to consider privacy must include the right to define how far in our own particular cases – and, what’s more, at any particular and variable time – it must be able to place and extend its boundaries, the state will have to be far more fleet-of-foot if it is not to fall into the trap of behaving like the racists and bullies who throughout our shared histories have dominated accepted opinion with bald prejudice.
For in a sense, not asking someone where they see the limits of their own privacy reaching (or only asking them once but not repeatedly) (or not asking them with the education, politeness and cautious kindness a desire to both civilise and be civilised has to encompass) is to do what racists and bullies do constantly: take a personal point of view – that of the bully or racist – and impose it unquestioningly on the emotions and intellect of another. No permission requested; all assumptions of every right to do so placed upfront; the complete and assumed disregarding of the need for dialogue and communication with the other party.
If it’s not racist for me, it’s not racist for you either; if it’s not bullying for me, it’s not bullying for you either; and if reading your emails and your text messages, listening to your phonecalls and Skype conversations and forming an opinion of your attitudes and being from your metadata (not to mention watching and sharing your sexual activity laughingly alongside others I work with) isn’t something I’d consider an invasion of privacy for me, it’s not something you should consider an invasion of privacy for you either.
But that’s because just like racists and bullies before me, I’m now doing exactly the same with privacy. Perhaps we need to coin a new term: how does “privacist” suit the moment?
I tell you what: if the same people who in Britain have just sanctioned the long-term retention of citizens’ Internet data used the same process, behaviours and attitudes to define bullying and racism, to defining the envelopes of what governments with such a freer hand could now do to the governed, there’d be a hue and cry like no other heard in history.