Reading a recent Slate piece by Jack Shafer on threats to our online privacy, I took particular note of the following statement:
The privacy problem is really one of our own making. We’re the ones who surrender the privacy of the contents of our e-mail, calendars, and contacts to Gmail, which then sells ads against those contents.
Shafer’s piece made me consider, specifically, how I feel about the idea of advertisers learning enough about me to tailor their efforts to my apparent interests. After some thought, I decided that, all things considered, I’m pretty much in favor of it. Here’s my reasoning: I’m going to have to look at advertisements anyway (because that’s the price I willingly pay for free access to what would otherwise be expensive information), and I’d rather see ads that interest me than ones that don’t.
For example, I have a very great interest in reggae music and no interest whatsoever in beer. So if the Pressure Sounds record label issues a new collection of 1970s dubplates, I very much want to know about it, whereas if Budweiser creates yet another new variety of light beer, I really couldn’t care less. This means that I’m very interested in seeing advertisements from Pressure Sounds, and I’m really not interested in seeing ads from Budweiser (unless they’re funny, in which case I’m happy to watch them — but Budweiser’s money is wasted in making sure that I do). If Google can help make that kind of targeted advertising happen for me, I’m grateful for it, and letting Google see the contents of my Gmail account is a price I’d happily pay.
But it’s one thing to use Gmail in the full knowledge that Google is going to examine the contents of your email and your calendar. It’s another thing, for example, to access e-books and be unsure whether your online reading behavior is going to be examined in the same way.
This worry is what prompted a large group of individuals and organizations (including ALA, ACRL, ARL, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Center for Democracy & Technology) to write an open letter late last year to attorneys involved in the Google Books settlement, asking them to “to urge Google to include enforceable privacy protections along with the amended settlement agreement.” The letter went on to say that:
. . . the failure of the settlement to ensure that readers using the Google Book Search services will have their privacy protected as much as readers using physical books has been a key concern for many authors, libraries and the reading public.
Now, one has to wonder to what degree this has really been a “key concern” for the “reading public.” But it certainly concerns librarians, and it obviously concerns some authors as well — that same letter goes on to quote Jonathan Lethem as saying that:
. . . now is the moment to make sure that Google Book Search is as private as the world of physical books. If future readers know that they are leaving a digital trail for others to follow, they may shy away from important but eccentric intellectual journeys.
Lethem, and the many other signatories to the letter, are surely not mistaken in thinking that the prospect of imperfect privacy might dissuade some readers from pursuing certain paths of inquiry. But it seems to me that we need to weigh that risk against the benefits of free public access to massive numbers of books that would be otherwise unavailable to all but a privileged few.
It seems pretty clear to me that many more “important but eccentric intellectual journeys” will be made possible by Google’s project than will be discouraged by the theoretical possibility of cybersnooping.
The writers of the letter would probably respond that they’re not arguing against the settlement, only in favor of stronger privacy provisions. But make no mistake: to make the use of Google Books as private as the use of physical books would be impossible. You can walk into a library and take a book down from the shelf, or buy a book in a bookstore, without disclosing anything about yourself other than the fact of your presence and your physical appearance. Accessing the Internet, for any purpose, almost always requires much more personal disclosure — to your home access provider, your employer, your library, or whatever other entity is granting or selling you access. To argue that the Google settlement should only be approved if it includes provisions that make use of the service as private as the use of printed books is, in practice, to argue that the settlement should not be passed.
The letter’s signatories make another error, in my view — they assume that people experienced relatively high privacy in the print realm because they wanted it, and therefore that reducing privacy in the online realm means taking away something that people value. I’m not sure that’s self-evident at all. What is certain is that the print book conferred certain privacy benefits simply by virtue of its disconnectedness from other media; the assumption that those benefits were desired by readers is conjectural.
There’s a way to test the validity of that assumption: let people choose how much privacy they get, and offer them rewards for giving up certain privacy protections. To the degree that they are willing either to give up privacy in return for rewards, or to forego rewards to keep their privacy, we’ll get a better idea of how much people value which kinds of privacy, and in what amounts. (Of course, this only works if people are able to make informed decisions — they need to know up front what the privacy stakes are, or else they won’t actually be making choices.)
Does this approach amount to the commodification of privacy? Absolutely, and as such, it’s business as usual.
In fact, privacy is very clearly a commodity and always has been; all of us trade it, in varying amounts, every day for things we value more. In personal relationships, we trade privacy for intimacy and connection. In commercial relationships, we trade it for the convenience of shopping from home or on credit. We trade some degree of privacy to brick-and-mortar stores in return for discounts or other special deals that come with various kinds of loyalty programs. We trade it to libraries in return for the privilege of using their collections. And the list goes on.
None of this is to say that privacy doesn’t matter. Of course it does, just as accuracy and promptness and patriotism matter. But while it’s essential to recognize the importance of privacy, it’s equally important to recognize that it matters in different degrees depending on context, just as accuracy and promptness and patriotism do. Each of these can be of enormous importance in some circumstances, and in others each can also pale in importance next to other concerns.
What’s the right balance of privacy and access? I think the answer will differ hugely from person to person and situation to situation, and I think all of us should be very wary of anyone who tells us that one answer is always the right one.