To Privacy and Beyond!

Just finished reading Issue 19 of Open, ‘Beyond Privacy, new perspectives on the public and private domains‘. The angle is to stop crying over spilt milk, “taking the present situation of ‘post-privacy’ for what it is and trying to gain insight into what is on the horizon in terms of new subjectivities and power constructions”. I particularly enjoyed the articles by Daniel Solove and Felix Stalder, both redefining privacy (not a fan of Stalder’s 2.0 addition, but the article is a good read) while refraining from putting all responsibility on the user/consumer/citizen, and investigating strategies for law and state to better protect the right of individuals to privacy.

In “Autonomy and Control in the Era of Post-privacy”, Felix Stalder argues for Privacy 2.0: new strategies for connective opacity that should make clear what people outside a network can see of what goes on inside, and what providers of those infrastructures can see of the inside as well, and all of that using mandatory transparency of the protocols they use to provide their services, so that discrimination can be contested.

When asked in a survey, people claim to care about their privacy, but their actions indicate otherwise. Stalder points to two causes of this paradox. The notion of subjectivity changed: new forms of sociability have arisen, and in order to be social in the networked society, you must first make yourself visible. You must, in other words, “express yourself”. Subjectivity moved from introspection to interaction. In this context privacy is not a positive right, but a possible threat to disconnect. The second cause he mentions is the changed relationship between individuals and large institutions. Nowadays everything is about customized and personalized services, which require vast amounts of personal data. The deal “personal info in exchange for personalised services” is commonly accepted, even though all the knowledge ends up on the side of the corporations, who use it on their own terms and in their own interest. If at some point the interest of consumer and company no longer align, personalization turns into (automated) discrimination. Consumers have no access to the decision-making mechanisms (data mining algorithms) and there is no standard against which these processes can be measured.

Open issue 19

“Our privacy is under assault”, thus starts the article “The Meaning and Value of Privacy, Appeal for a Pluralistic Definition of the Concept of Privacy” by Daniel Solove. Solove wants to get rid of the narrow and individualistic way privacy is often framed, because it leads to an undervaluing of the concept. In the public versus private interest battle (for instance national security versus privacy of the individual), the public interest usually wins. But privacy is not a one dimensional concept that determines our right to have secrets or not. Solove refers to philosopher John Dewey when explaining how privacy, as part of our individual rights, furthers the common good. It creates a space for people to breathe, protecting against excessive intrusion (of state, companies, others) into our lives. Privacy is social.

Currently, when privacy is under debate, the law handles a very narrow definition of it, often focussing only on whether privacy was expected in a certain situation or not. Solove explains the law should protect privacy because we desire privacy, not because we expect it. I really like the example he gives to illustrate this. Wire-tapping became illegal only after people started wishing for more privacy. Before that, during the early years of telephony, nobody was expecting privacy, it was very normal to share lines with other households. Our privacy should be protected, because we experience a lack of it. In this article, and in his book “Understanding Privacy”, he redefines it following a pluralistic method and taxonomy based on real problems, instead of abstract concepts, hoping to contribute to a better protection of our rights.

Other contributions from Rudi Laermans, Maurizio Lazzarato, Martijn de Waal, Armin Medosh, Rob van Kranenburg and Mark Shepard. Open – Cahier on Art and the Public Domain, issue 19, Beyond Privacy (Nai Publishers).

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