On Privacy and Why We Should Care… (Part I)

For the last couple of years print and digital media have been exploring the relationship between technology and privacy. The attention is not unwarranted. Privacy is the key concept behind a discussion that is taking place to redefine the 21st century nature of information. “Public” information – corporate info is protected by law – is a fundamental building block of the new knowledge economy. What is at stake here is who owns it and who has the right to use it and benefit from it.

So far there are two ways to look at this issue; the first is double sided. One side is all about freedom, connectivity, getting people together, empowering communities, making the world a smaller, more intimate place, and so on. On the other side there is money, huge deposits of consumer information, access to clusters of buyers, online real-time market research, behavioural marketing, etc. From this perspective, the issue is regarded as one of personal rights vs. market freedom. The solution? Internet law; regulate and control the use of internet to prevent its abuse by “rotten apples”. The argument here is that one realm of social life is invading another.  For some people ‘good government’ would be making the most of the social benefits of technology and regulating its market use; others believe that ‘good government’ would be regulating the social use of technology (mainly for national security reasons) and making the most of its market use. It’s a modern version of the chicken or the egg argument. David Lyons, tech writer for Newsweek, uses the example of Facebook to present his stance on the privacy issue.  For Lyons, the problem is that:

“… people are being lured into Facebook with the promise of a fun, free service, and don’t realize that they’re paying for it by giving up loads of personal information. Facebook then attempts to “monetize” one’s data by selling it to advertisers that want to send targeted messages” In a following piece he continues, “The truth is, Zuckerberg needs your data. His business is built upon it. The most important thing to understand about Facebook is that you are not Facebook’s customer, you are its inventory.” (think about this next time you give up your data to know which Harry Potter character you are)

The second way to look at this is by questioning the concept of privacy, as Susan Krashinsky and Omar El Akkad argue in their Globe and Mail piece The End of Online Privacy. For them, the traditional concept of privacy is fading: “if you think the long form census is pushing boundaries by asking how many bedrooms are in your house, imagine someone knowing the exact color of the IKEA sheets you are thinking of buying for your bed”.  For them, the key problem is not that companies gather data, nor the amount gathered. That data itself helps companies provide better services, improve, and focus our search for the right products at the best prices.  The data, after all, can be anonymously handled. The problem is that once companies begin to use tracking technology (cookies) and locating individuals in a geographic realm (a zip code or an IP address) they are one click away from turning general data into personal data (did someone say big brother?).

From the government side, Jennifer Stoddart, Canada’s Commissioner of Privacy, seems to be doing a good job with little formal power and limited resources. Her job is to oversee compliance with the Privacy Act and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. She was a key player in “the world vs. Google buzz” case last year. She is conducting research on the actual technological capabilities of behavioural marketing companies (to see how close they are from total omniscience) and she is reviewing the current legislation to identify loopholes and gaps. Generally speaking, people are happy with her and Canada is doing better than most countries, which means the issue is not being ignored.

If you haven’t grasped the importance of the privacy issue, think about it as analogous to the British privatization of the commons that preceded the Industrial Revolution. First came the privatization of the commons, then the intensive use of agricultural land and armies of proletarians moving to the cities. Again, we are talking about the allocation of rights over a public good, we are deciding who has the right to exploit a resource that was once public. Mass production would not exist without mass resources and mass labour. In the same way mass innovation can’t occur without mass information. There is a major battle going on; its name is privacy, the goal is information, the battlefield is Internet and we are all playing Farmville.

– By Jose Javier Iguiñiz Romero


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