Debate on privacy: the fuller text

The Wall Street Journal today publishes excerpts from a debate among me, danah boyd, Stewart Baker, and Christopher Soghoian about privacy (and publicness). They had us write to specific lengths, so I was surprised that they didn’t publish the entire conversation, even online. So if you can bear more, here are my complete bits; I’ll let me fellow debaters post their own.

Later: Here are danah boyd’s complete answers.

Part I:

Privacy is important. It deserves protection. And it is receiving protection from no end of self-appointed watchdogs, legislators, regulators, consultants, companies, and chief privacy officers: an entire regulatory/industrial complex. Privacy is in good hands.

It’s publicness I worry about: our corresponding right and newfound ability to use this Gutenberg press we all now own—the internet—to speak, assemble, act, connect, and collaborate in a more open society. I fear that that if we over-regulate privacy, managing only to the worst-case, we could lose sight of the benefits of publicness, the value of sharing.

Our new sharing industry—led by Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Foursquare, blogs, and new services launched every day—is premised on an innate human desire to connect. Eight hundred million people can’t be wrong. That’s how many people use Facebook alone to post more than a billion artifacts of their lives every day. These aren’t privacy services. They are social services.

But the private/public discussion to date has focused almost exclusively on privacy and worry. New technologies that cause disruption have often led to collective concern about privacy. After the invention of the press, the earliest published authors fretted about having their thoughts associated with their names, set down permanently and distributed widely. The first serious discussion of a legal right to privacy in the United States did not come until 1890, spurred by the invention of the portable Kodak camera and the rise of the penny press. For a time, President Teddy Roosevelt banned “kodakers” from Washington parks.

Now we are at the dawn of the greatest technological disruption since the press and it brings corresponding concern. It is well to worry about what could go wrong so we may guard against it, to assure that companies and especially government do not surveil us to our detriment.

But I ask us to also recognize and guard the publicness our new tools empower. I hope we engage in another discussion about the principles of an open society: the right to connect, speak, assemble and act; privacy as an ethic; the call for our institutions to become transparent by default and secret by necessity (now it is reversed); the value of maintaining the public square; and the need to safeguard the people’s net from tyrants, censors, private control, and the unintended consequences of well-meaning but premature regulation.

Privacy has its protectors. What of publicness?

Part II:

Privacy legislation and regulation are awash with unintended consequences.

Germany’s head of consumer protection, Ilse Aigner, surely believes she is guarding citizens’ privacy when she urges them to exercise their Verpixelungsrecht, their so-called right to have photos of buildings taken from public streets pixilated in Google Street View. But she sets a precedent that could affect the free-speech rights of journalists and citizens. She diminishes the public square at the public’s cost.

The U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act says sites may not use information specific to a child under 13 without written (that is, faxed, scanned, or videoconferenced) parental consent. The result: Children learn to lie about their age. And young people are likely the worst-served sector of society online. That is a tragedy of lost opportunity.

The Do Not Track legislation making its way through Congress threatens ad tracking and cookies. This newspaper demonizes them as “intrusive” and “intensive surveillance.” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz denounces media that use them as “cyberazzi.” Though most of this data is anonymous. Taken too far, Do Not Track could devalue online media, resulting in less content, more pay walls, and a less-informed populace. The road to ignorance may be paved with good intentions.

Part III:

Stipulated: Anonymity, pseudonymity, and even nicknames need to be protected for the vulnerable, dissidents in danger, whistleblowers, and even game players, for the sake of their speech.

That said, real people and real relationships have proven to add value, accountability, and civility to online discourse.

Stipulated: The advertising, media, and sharing industries have done a dreadful job being open about what they track, why, and what benefits accrue to their users. The mess they’re in is much of their own making.

Even so, online tracking is being demonized in shrill fear-mongering (Chris’ is but one example), which doesn’t acknowledge that most of this data—unlike the consumer data bases of preinternet marketing—do not contain names and addresses. There is little discussion of harm or benefit, only vague fear.

Stipulated: We need to come together as one society to perform certain functions, such as voting and taxation.

But we are not a mass. The myth of the grand shared experience of media—all of us hanging on Uncle Walter’s every pause—was an unfortunate, half-century-long aberration. Democracy should be a cacophony of ideas and perspectives. Thanks to our new tools of publicness, we are regaining the power to create and find our own publics.

Identity can aid connections. Tracking can produce relevance. Personalization can reduce noise. These are benefits of the net.

  • Mark McGuire

    Good morning, Jeff (well, it’s morning in New Zealand in any case).

    It is difficult to talk about the value public space, and public conversations, on the Internet, when there are so few places for such conversations to take place. There is no equivalent of the public square online, at least nothing approaching the historic agora, or the open market square that we all remember from our visits to older, more human-scaled cities that were built before the automobile and well-meaning planners pulled us apart. As well as lacking traditional public space, the Internet has no intermediate, semi-private or semi-public space. We are “in” a space, or “not in”; visibility, and the opportunity for dialog, is “on” or “off”. Your blog is pretty much invisible from a distance. There is no sidewalk that I can take through the neighbourhood, glancing casually at your site as I amble by, scanning for a friendly face. No neighbourhood. Your blog has no front porch where you can sit, watching the world (and me) as I pass by, catch my eye, smile, and nod, inviting me to say “good morning, how about the weather, eh? No weather. There is no way for us to size one another up as we might when we are close enough to read one another’s body language, picking up on the subtleties, communicating on a thousand channels at once. No bodies.

    Early efforts to reproduce social space online have taken the shovel ware approach — collect all the valuable stuff, including the kind of spaces we love and dream about, and throw it into the digital furnace, where it melts into a million crystals and reassembles as Disneyland, or Shangri-La. In a desperate attempt to keep our stories, and ourselves, alive, we try to reproduce our (sometimes imagined) places, social practices, and social institutions in the new environment (a game of Colonize the New World, anyone?). We are just beginning to understand the language of new media (new to some of us, at least). Understanding the language of social space in this new place is much harder, because we never really thought much about how it worked back home. (It was as invisible to us as water is to a fish. Now that we are out of water, we notice its absence). Learning how to build in the vernacular, using native timbers and technologies, will take time. Fortunately, there are people who have spent their whole lives here, so, if we watch them closely, and listen, we might learn how to survive here. Maybe we can relearn the art of nodding, smiling and talking about the weather.

    Mark McGuire
    Twitter: @mark_mcguire

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