Privacy paranoia dramatized

The German Consumers’ Union—funded by the German government—has put out a video warning internet users about their privacy under a campaign called Surfers Have Rights. You don’t need to speak a word of German to get the gist:

(At the end, the text says: “You do this every day … on the internet.” And the shopper is asking simply, “Excuse me, where do I find…? The store clerk needs no translation.)

The German blog Netzpolitik thinks it’s a nice video. But Martin Weigert at Netzwertig has real concerns. The video “does but than spread distrust,” he says, arguing that even the most trivial data that “has the value of a dropped sack of rice in China” (must be an idiom) is made to seem drastically overvalued. The clip presents consumers as helpless, persecuted by their cohort. “What message does this convey? Mistrust everyone and everything.”

Hmmm. One would think that the German government would be somewhat sensitive to some irony there since, in earlier form, it was quite effective at making everyone mistrust everyone.

But the metaphor is hardly just German. Last week in Congress, Sen. Jay Rockefeller pulled out the overused trope that navigating the internet is like shopping in a mall, being watched in every move by “a machine” (very Orwell, that). The Byron Dorgen revealed a bit too much, I think, when he extended the metaphor to wonder whether, when going to the ladies’ lingerie department, onlookers would wonder whether you were really buying some for your wife or…. “That’s a really good analogy, I think, to what is going on on the Internet today,” said Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

No, it’s not. You are already being watched in the store. Stores have cameras watching you. They track what you buy via your credit card and frequent-shopper cards. They have floorwalkers and clerks who see what you buy. Fellow shoppers can see what you buy. So the hell what? So you like bananas. It’s a sickness in the mind of the beholder to imagine you doing something bad with the fruit.

The German clip and the Congressional “debate” reveal that the essential argument about privacy is too often purely emotional. You may — and do — go about your shopping every day feeling quite fine about it but here are government officials who want to creep you out. Government officials who have the power to creep us out in plenty of other ways. And now The Wall Street Journal is continuing the creep-out (odd, since they’d usually be the ones for business freedom against government regulation… hmmm).

In neither exposition is there any discussion of actual damage and actual danger, just nonspecific creepiness. Thus Netzwertig worries about the public’s attitude toward the internet and technology itself. I do, too. I will argue in my book that we need strong protection for privacy especially against bad actors — but I’ll go the extra step and try to define privacy and define the danger for unless we do that, all we’re doing is summoning boogeymen with warnings of nonspecific creepiness. And then I’ll argue that what we should be spending time understanding how this new world works and finding the opportunities in it because its progress is inexorable.

: LATER: Here’s an equivalent EFF video (in English):

I ask, what’s the great harm of giving me couch ads when I’m looking for a couch? Would I rather have bra ads when I can’t use them? Where’s the harm?