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Privacy is contextual and social, less legal and technical

Privacy is more than a couple settings and a consent checkbox on a form somewhere. Privacy and publicity seem to be pretty straightforward concepts and, legally, they are treated fairly superficially and defined mechanically. A result of that is a similarly superficial treatment in conversations about privacy and publicity in social and commercial engagements which rarely touches on what privacy really means to us. This leaves us fundamentally confused and conflicted about privacy because we have a deeper sense of what privacy means to us but the typical conversation about privacy lacks the language to describe that deeper sense of it all.

Anil Dash and dana boyd recently published articles on Medium titled “What is Public?” and “What is Privacy?“, respectively, which dive deeper into what publicity and privacy mean to us. If you are interested in what privacy and publicity mean in modern times, you should read both articles carefully:

What Is Public? andWhat Is Privacy?

One of the paragraphs in Dash’s article that stood out for me was this one:

What if the public speech on Facebook and Twitter is more akin to a conversation happening between two people at a restaurant? Or two people speaking quietly at home, albeit near a window that happens to be open to the street? And if more than a billion people are active on various social networking applications each week, are we saying that there are now a billion public figures? When did we agree to let media redefine everyone who uses social networks as fair game, with no recourse and no framework for consent?

I agree more with boyd that privacy is more about social convention. I particularly like this extract from boyd’s article:

The very practice of privacy is all about control in a world in which we fully know that we never have control. Our friends might betray us, our spaces might be surveilled, our expectations might be shattered. But this is why achieving privacy is desirable. People want to be in public, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to be public. There’s a huge difference between the two. As a result of the destabilization of social spaces, what’s shocking is how frequently teens have shifted from trying to restrict access to content to trying to restrict access to meaning. They get, at a gut level, that they can’t have control over who sees what’s said, but they hope to instead have control over how that information is interpreted. And thus, we see our collective imagination of what’s private colliding smack into the notion of public. They are less of a continuum and more of an entwined hairball, reshaping and influencing each other in significant ways.

I also think this next extract nicely captures why people become angry with brands and why reputational harm happens at an emotional level. If you represent a brand, you should read this a few times:

When powerful actors, be they companies or governmental agencies, use the excuse of something being “public” to defend their right to look, they systematically assert control over people in a way that fundamentally disenfranchises them. This is the very essence of power and the core of why concepts like “surveillance” matter. Surveillance isn’t simply the all-being all-looking eye. It’s a mechanism by which systems of power assert their power. And it is why people grow angry and distrustful. Why they throw fits over being experimented on. Why they cry privacy foul even when the content being discussed is, for all intents and purposes, public.

Privacy is contextual. Law is also a poor mechanism for protecting it because law tends to be mechanical (it has to be). What we need more is a better awareness of what privacy and publicity mean in a social context and where the line is.

Jeff Jarvis made a statement about privacy in This Week in Google 261 which really caught my attention:

Privacy is a responsibility. It is an ethic of knowing someone else’s information.


Photo credit: Lost in Translation by kris krüg, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0

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