Privacy v transparency
Online privacy has become topical over the last couple of weeks with efforts by the likes of the Federal Trade Commission
and the Commerce Department to opine on what the government needs to do to protect consumers.
The Commerce Department wants a new "privacy police office" while the FTC wants a "do not track" option for web surfers so that our every click is not recorded as we wander through cyberspace.
Technology companies are also coming up with solutions to allow consumers to protect their privacy online. Microsoft recently announced a new feature in the latest version of Internet Explorer to allow users to block tracking tools. The Mozilla Foundation has announced that a "do not track" option will also be in Firefox 4 when it is released early next year.
Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, was roundly criticised early in the year when he declared the age of privacy as being over during an interview with the technology blog TechCrunch.
He was not the first to make such a pronouncement. Wikipedia cites private investigator Steve Rambam as one person who declared "privacy is dead - get over it".
Even the current debacle over the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks that has publicised thousands of US diplomatic cables underlines that not everything can remain hidden from view.
But what of those who work hard to protect these tenets so many hold near and dear? In the US the Electronic Frontier Foundation is one such organisation.
Mr Perry Barlow told me that privacy in the world of the internet has been changed forever and that there is a real battle between what companies/governments/institutions know about us and what we know about them.
"Privacy for the individual is going away and I don't think there is anyway to stop that," said Mr Perry Barlow.
John Perry Barlow: The Electronic Frontier Foundation tries to slow that process as much as possible because there are a lot of people who still believe they want privacy. I don't happen to be one of them personally.
I don't think it is safe to have a world where the individual has no privacy and the institutions go on being private. Transparency has to be universally applied. I think it is quite easy for people to give up their privacy if they can see what is going on inside all the institutions that regulate their lives.
Maggie Shiels: You talk about how people are quite willing to be transparent but are concerned that companies do not follow the same rules. Who in your opinion are the best and worst actors?
John Perry Barlow: I wouldn't want to try to make a list of the good guys and the bad guys in that area. For example, Google starts out with the premise that they are not going to be evil and have always, in terms of the personalities of the founders, been very much in favour of an open free internet. As they become more and more an advertising company and sensitive to the vagaries of the market, they are increasingly looking at closing [the internet] in very subtle ways and already in ways that I find disturbing.
For example, if you sat down at your computer and I sat down at mine and we entered the same search terms, we would get very different results in a way that is invisible to us, but which shapes the way in which we define the world around us - according to the desires and expectations of the people who write algorithms at Google. So there you have a good actor that is increasingly becoming the enemy; at the same time you have organisations like WalMart, that people think of as the enemy, that are trying to open up their processes increasingly for public oversight.
MS: What about Facebook, who are constantly in the firing line because they are trying to redefine privacy and how it is viewed?
JPB: I think there is a tension between privacy and freedom of expression. I have always known that and felt sensitive to it. I think Google are putting their money on freedom of expression rather than privacy and that causes no end of consternation at the Electronic Frontier Foundation; within that organisation we have people who are there because of the defence of privacy and people who are there because of free expression and they have to make their bargains.
MS: Is what Facebook is doing - trying to make us more transparent and arguably give up some privacy - a good thing?
JPB: I think that is inevitable and they are responding to a generational shift - one that I predicted a long time ago and that I am not surprised to see. I think that kids naturally want to be seen as they are. And I think this is generally the case. And I think that is a healthy societal impulse.
A lot of the impulse to privacy arose in the second world war when we were obsessively focused on a secretive power and we had moved into living conditions that were socially sealed from one another in a way that small towns were not.
The reason that privacy was never put into the constitution is that the people that wrote it didn't have any. They all lived in small agricultural towns where everybody knew everything. Ultimately I think that having personal secrets is a stimulus to social dysfunction and pathology and what we need to be working on, rather than maintaining privacy, is maintaining the ability to respect difference - different kinds of people.
People have all kinds of impulses and desires that don't necessarily harm somebody else but might not be according to norms - and what we have to be is less normative as a society.
I am not talking about tolerance because I think there is something condescending about tolerance. I am talking about acceptance and appreciation and I believe that one of the things that is going on with Facebook is the elevation of a kind of visibility that promotes understanding. And promotes respect ultimately.
I think in 20 years the fact that kids that have had pictures on their Facebook pages that make them look like kids is not going to be a real liability in terms of their ability to operate effectively in the workplace because everybody acted like a kid.
MS: That is the great fear: that these photos will remain on the internet and there will be a backlash for youngsters later in life.
JPB: Yes, but that depends a lot on the institutions. If the institutions are equally transparent then their ability to be censorious or judgemental about individuals' private behaviour becomes a lot more problematic. So I think the answer is precisely the one that Wikileaks is stimulating which is: let's see how you are before you set yourself up in some high moral position. Let's see what you are actually doing.
MS: So you are saying transparency makes our world a better place to live in?
JPB: I believe that. But only if it is bilateral. Only if it's both institutional and personal.
MS: And what about the companies of the world pushing us to be more transparent, like the Facebooks or the Googles that want us to share more of our personal information?
JPB: I don't know that Facebook is pushing us to be more transparent. It is making it possible and letting people make their own choices to a large extent. Now I don't think that Facebook is some kind of benign social actor. I mean they are also an advertising company - that is their business model. And they are monitoring behaviour of people with Facebook accounts very closely and they are forming that behaviour in various ways that may not even be obvious to them.