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Just over a year ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said that in the age of social networking, "people no longer have an expectation of privacy." Google's Eric Schmidt, although he has emphasized the importance of privacy has also indicated that definitions of privacy are changing as a result of so much information being willingly surrendered to the internet, suggesting in a 2009 statement that if a person wanted to keep something private, it was probably because they shouldn't be doing it in the first place.
A Brief History of Privacy
Privacy as we know it - a term that we understand and define based on the culture in which we are raised - is a relatively modern concept. Prior to the rise of democracy privacy merely referred to a man's right to be left alone, free from physical harm.
The Enlightenment, the invention of the printing press and the spread of the cheap newspaper brought about a fundamental shift in perception about people as individuals. Where, under the monarchy, people were viewed as property - a part of the landscape like trees, rivers and natural resources - in the developing idea of democracy (and in particular in the discourse of the French Revolution) each individual had the ability to reason and to think and hence should have an equal voice in society.
If each man's thoughts and opinions were valuable and important, then protecting an individual's personal space, ideas and feelings became suddenly more important.
No longer could the State simply invade people's homes to billet soldiers, conduct searches - registering births, deaths and marriages became a topic for debate as did taxation and the State's invasion into people's financial affairs; voting became secret so as to protect a man's right to choose his representatives privately and without undue influence; people began to build houses that afforded privacy for individual members of the household.
In the U.S. it was an 1880 article in the Harvard Law Review by Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren which laid out the modern definition of privacy, explaining that
"Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing to the individual what Judge Cooley calls the right "to be let alone" Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that "what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops." For years there has been a feeling that the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons; and the evil of invasion of privacy by the newspapers, long keenly felt, has been but recently discussed by an able writer."
Even so, it was not until the age of technology that privacy became a real concern for the average individual
Brandeis and Warren explain the effects of the discussion of "gossip" and prurient details of people's personal lives on the intellectual health and productivity of society as a whole,
"To satisfy a prurient taste the details of sexual relations are spread broadcast in the columns of the daily papers. To occupy the indolent, column upon column is filled with idle gossip, which can only be procured by intrusion upon the domestic circle. The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury. Nor is the harm wrought by such invasions confined to the suffering of those who may be the subjects of journalistic or other enterprise. In this, as in other branches of commerce, the supply creates the demand. Each crop of unseemly gossip, thus harvested, becomes the seed of more, and, in direct proportion to its circulation, results in the lowering of social standards and of morality. Even gossip apparently harmless, when widely and persistently circulated, is potent for evil. It both belittles and perverts. It belittles by inverting the relative importance of things, thus dwarfing the thoughts and aspirations of a people. When personal gossip attains the dignity of print, and crowds the space available for matters of real interest to the community, what wonder that the ignorant and thoughtless mistake its relative importance. Easy of comprehension, appealing to that weak side of human nature which is never wholly cast down by the misfortunes and frailties of our neighbors, no one can be surprised that it usurps the place of interest in brains capable of other things. Triviality destroys at once robustness of thought and delicacy of feeling. No enthusiasm can flourish, no generous impulse can survive under its blighting influence."
Technology, Privacy and the Internet
The previous paragraph could just as easily describe Western society in 2011, with its obsession with tabloid culture, fame and celebrity. In the last 10-15 years, however, we have willingly tossed aside our own right to a private life, not just through our obsession with the lives of celebrities, but through our desparate need to emulate fame through reality TV shows, blogging, livestreaming our lives onto the internet.
Most of us have embraced Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Flickr and LinkedIn as an easy means of keeping in touch with friends and family and of making business contacts and finding others with shared interests. What we fail to consider is how our willingness to make our private lives public reverses those hard-won rights to decide what to make public and what to keep private, as the more we happily put into full public view the less we inherently reserve the right to keep private.
The mere fact that superinjunctions exist is a direct result of changing attitudes towards what should be allowed to be kept private - and our prurient interest in each others' lives and the growing understanding that nothing is private has driven us towards a culture of surveillance where every man has full view of his neighbours' activities all the time.
It is very important that not just those of us working within the internet industry, encouraging increased use of social networks and using technology to gather increasingly large amounts of information about people's lives, their likes and dislikes, their habits and their buying patterns, understand the wider implications of changing our definition of privacy, but that members of wider society understand how this will affect their lives as individuals, and that we analyse the good and the bad aspects of this cultural shift.
- The negatives should be patently obvious:
- Everything publicly available by search to potential partners, parents, friends, employers
- A culture of surveillance where the State knows everything about us and increasingly monitors what we do with our implicit permission
- A media which focuses too much on the private lives of those in the public eye instead of reporting on issues with far-reaching implications for society
- Ease of contact with friends and family
- Wider freedom of expression with the ability for anybody to reach a wide audience
- Benefits of technology on our lives making it easy to find people and places
- The inability of the State to block access to information which may be within the public interest
- Greater interaction between different cultures and ideologies leading to greater understanding
ConclusionsCertainly nobody would argue that the internet has been anything but a revolutionary invention bringing knowledge and connectivity, cutting across state lines and cultural boundaries. It has, however, along with the growing desire for round the clock news and information at our fingertips and the changing definition of celebrity (and perhaps the ease at which celebrity is obtained in the modern age), also altered our perception of how we define "privacy."
We can already see the push and pull of changing ideas about privacy in the EU's attempt to legislate regarding cookies, in the debate about superinjunctions and what details of celebrities' private lives it is in the public's interest to know; even in our own industry, debates rage about what information is "public" and open to discussion and dissection in regards to websites' search engine optimisation techniques. We're being forced to rethink our definition of privacy - whether we realise it or not.
More and more, unless we begin to monitor and moderate what we upload into the public sphere online, we're just going to have to accept that privacy has changed and begin to think like Eric Schmidt - "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."