Recently, pronouncements by online mega-players (Google, Facebook) have been lighting up the boards as Eric Schmidt and Mark Zuckerberg particularly have made incendiary comments about the future and value of privacy.

Here’s Eric Schmidt, in a brief clip, saying things that might just give any educated person a chill:

While he looks harmless, Schmidt’s words are anathema to a free society. And while he’s glib about our privacy, when Schmidt was the subject of a story generated by using Google to uncover his earnings, address, activities, and other details, he didn’t enjoy the scrutiny. In fact, Google cut off ties with CNET (which published the story) for months afterward.

His most damning quote from the interview above: “If have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

It brings to mind something Cardinal Richeleu once said, “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.”

In other words, nobody survives in a culture in which privacy is not acknowledged as a basic barrier to authority.

Schmidt’s privacy odyssey wasn’t finished. A few days after the interview above, Google’s servers in China were hacked, and some Gmail accounts compromised. Was Schmidt indifferent to this situation? No, but not because he feared for Chinese dissidents (who, to quote his own words, were likely to “have something that you don’t want anyone to know,” which of course means that “maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” because, um, dissent is obviously wrong). Instead, the company’s statements seemed to reflect concerns about their own information and business model.

Privacy has been under assault for a decade, from when Sun’s Scott McNeely famously proclaimed, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it,” to the infamous USA Patriot Act, to just this month when Facebook’s Zuckerberg stated that no expectation of privacy is part of “current social norms.”

Zuckerberg repeatedly shows himself to be callow, and this is just another example. Nicholas Carr calls him “the Web’s most amusing philosopher-king.” In a scathing assessment of “the Zuckster’s” propensity for ridiculous, overblown statements framed as wisdom, Carr wrote this in 2007:

“Once every hundred years media changes,” boy-coder turned big-thinker Mark Zuckerberg declared today at the Facebook Social Advertising Event in New York City. And it’s true. Look back over the last millennium or two, and you’ll see that every century, like clockwork, there’s been a big change in media. Cave painting lasted a hundred years, and then there was smoke signaling, which also lasted a hundred years, and of course there was the hundred years of yodeling, and then there was the printing press, which was invented almost precisely 100 years ago, and so forth and so on up to the present day – the day that Facebook picked up the 100-year torch and ran with it.

So, Schmidt can be perceived as a hypocrite and Zuckerberg comes off as a callow pseudo-intellectual. But both are focused on privacy for the same reason — they have to break down expectations of privacy for their businesses to thrive.

Google works better the more information it has about the Web. Facebook works better the more information it has about the Web. And with 2.0 meaning that people’s identities are more intertwined with digital communications, that means both are gaining more information about us. And time is on their side. The longer they keep the field tilted in their favor, the more information they have. We just keep updating our statuses and publishing our blogs.

Oops, did I just blog that?

Making statements about the vague concept of privacy and proclaiming it old-fashioned is clearly a neutralization strategy. If Zuckerberg and Schmidt can keep users confused and apathetic long enough, they can continue to expand their businesses.

But privacy is a social construct and basic human expectation, not a legal or technological construct. In a very good contemplation of Zuckerberg’s recent statements, Marshall Kirkpatrick from ReadWriteWeb has this to say about Facebook’s recent erosion of some of its privacy controls, and the differences between privacy and secrecy:

If a college friend took photos of you drinking in a bar and showed them off to people in church, you might feel your privacy has been violated in both appropriateness and distribution. The bar is a public place, though, and not completely secret. Thus the need for a more sophisticated understanding of privacy that is more than mere secrecy. By pushing your personal information and conversation through activity updates fully into the public, Facebook is eliminating any integrity of context that these conversations would naturally have. Posted updates can be directed only to limited lists of Facebook contacts, like college buddies or work friends, but that option is buried under more public default options and much of a user’s activity on the site is not subject to that kind of option.

The line between public and private is being blurred actively and consistently by people seeking to exploit uncertainty, in the same way that batters scuff the batter’s box during a baseball game.

The UK is taking a serious look at these issues. When will the US?

Maybe when we get serious about our rights and our democracy again.

As Bruce Schneier says,

Too many wrongly characterize the debate as “security versus privacy.” The real choice is liberty versus control. Tyranny, whether it arises under threat of foreign physical attack or under constant domestic authoritative scrutiny, is still tyranny. Liberty requires security without intrusion, security plus privacy. Widespread police surveillance is the very definition of a police state. And that’s why we should champion privacy even when we have nothing to hide.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


8 Thoughts on "Is Privacy Dead? Only When Exploitation Mixes with Apathy"

Your final quote is mistakenly attributed to Eric Scheir. The quote is actually from Bruce Schneier. Your link is correct, so I expect it was just a typing mistake.

Fixed it. Thanks for letting me know. My brain must have gone soft toward the end.

To my thinking, this is really a question of finding the right business model. For sites like Facebook (or newspapers for that matter), users have shown that they’re unwilling to pay for an account/subscription, so the site instead looks for alternate ways to monetize their traffic. The obvious path is the exploitation of the user. To those of us who value privacy, this is a gross insult. For the many already sharing the tawdry details of their life online in the age of the reality show, it’s not a blip on the radar. That’s why I noted here that “privacy is the new luxury”. There are some who don’t care about such things. For those that do, it’s a business opportunity for the Facebooks out there–can they, for a fee, provide us with the services we want while actively shepherding our privacy, looking out for our best interests rather than looking to exploit us. You’d have two tiers on any such site, the free users, whose data is constantly fed to anyone willing to pay, and the subscribers who get to control their own experience.

Danah Boyd on privacy:

Understanding what’s happening online is especially pertinent while discussions rage about how people’s attitude to privacy is changing – particularly the idea that digital natives have a vastly different approach to privacy from their predecessors. Instead, Boyd says, activities that strike adults as radically new are often more easily understood from the perspective of teenagers.

“Kids have always cared about privacy, it’s just that their notions of privacy look very different than adult notions,” she says. “Kids don’t have the kind of privacy that we assume they do.”

“As adults, by and large, we think of the home as a very private space – it’s private because we have control over it. The thing is, for young people it’s not a private space – they have no control. They have no control over who comes in and out of their room, or who comes in and out of their house. As a result the online world feels more private because it feels like it has more control.”

While I don’t want to make any comment about the specific individuals mentioned in this post, the issues touched on here are very important. I think what lawyers call “a chilling effect” is likely to become increasingly common as people become more aware that the Web is evolving into something like Bentham’s Panopticon, owned and managed by private interests. Sometimes we have to ask the question not of “What can technology do?” but “What is the nature of the world we want to live in?” And if we adopt the second question, the follow-on action is to determine who makes these decisions.

Closer to home for scholarly publishers, there is a related long and complicated trend from considering confidentiality ethical to considering transparency ethical in various forms of peer review. I recently submitted an abstract to a conference where all submissions were immediately posted for public viewing before review and selection. What would be the effect on scholarly publishing if all manuscript submissions were made publicly available before review and editing?

Very interesting and great post. Just when you thought the web titans were on our side, they sell out to consumerism (or apathy) as well. When people continue to talk about a “sustainable environment” for future generations, they need to start including a sustainable intellectual and personal environment as well.

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