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Privacy in a connected world

Updated Tuesday 19th April 2011

Unless you live in a cave, your privacy will be affected by digital technology. Jeff Jarvis and Andrew Keen agree on this; the question is how far it's good news...

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Andrew Keen

I think privacy matters because it’s essential to who we are as a species.  Charles Fried, the Harvard Law Professor, describes privacy as the oxygen that gives us the ability to have personality and meaning in our lives.  It’s fundamental.

Gareth Mitchell

Jeff, why does publicness matter?

Jeff Jarvis

Privacy is important, and in fact it feeds publicness, and publicness is our opportunity to do so much in life, to gather together and organise ourselves and be heard and change our world, and we all have new tools of publicness now.  We have our Gutenberg Press in the form of the internet, and my fear if we talk too much about privacy and become too manic about it, that we’ll lose the opportunities of publicness, the opportunities the internet presents to connect with each other.

Gareth Mitchell

And this notion of publicness is, it tends not to get spoken about as often as privacy, it almost sounds like a new word to me, publicness.  Andrew, does that word, does it offend you at all, does it trouble you maybe?

Andrew Keen

Well it troubles me in the sense that this is an old argument.  The ideal of publicness is one that certainly, Jeff may have invented the word but the concept is something that’s been debated, particularly amongst political philosophers, since the Greeks.  The idea that we, that our essential value as human beings is rooted in our publicness was something that was argued by Aristotle in his politics and ethics, and the contemporary debate is really between what I would call liberals and communitarians.  I tend to position myself on the liberal wing.  So I wouldn’t say that publicness offends me, I don’t think it’s an evil word, and I'm not, just as Jeff isn’t against privacy, I'm not against publicness, but in terms of calibrating these two concepts, I certainly believe that privacy is more important than publicness.  And if we become seduced by this idea of publicness, that our whole lives should be lived in public as the internet tends to be encouraging us to do, that is a bad thing for us as human beings.

Jeff Jarvis

We have an opportunity and a choice now to be public and private, and they are not opposites, they are not mutually exclusive, they are rather like water that’s hot or cold and everything in between.  But when we decide how to interact with the world around us, we have a choice of whether or not to hold something in or to share it.  And look at the fact that there are 600 million people sharing on Facebook a billion times a day.  They're not doing it because they're insane, they're not doing it because they were seduced, I don’t think, they're doing it for a good reason because they get benefit out of it.  And so I think that this choice is what we have to have in mind, as individuals, as companies, as governments, and as society, and it certainly is a choice that we make.  I'm just trying to argue that if all we do is worry about the worst that could happen with privacy, we’ll miss the opportunities to connect with each other.

Gareth Mitchell

Jeff, it seems if you want to engage digitally in any way it’s always based on this assumption that we do have to share everything, that it is all about the social, perhaps we don’t have as much of a choice as we might think?

Jeff Jarvis

When you face a Twitter box in front of you, you can choose to put something in it or not, it’s that simple.  No, you're not forced into this.  What I think we have is a discussion of fear of worst case, and in my research I've found that the fear is very often tied to technology.  After Gutenberg invented his press, the earliest authors were afraid of having their ideas and their names put down permanently and spread widely.  The first discussion of a legal right to privacy came in the United States in 1890, thanks to the invention of the Kodak camera and the fear of fiendish Kodakers lying in wait for you.  And now of course we have the internet, as this most amazing technology invention that we've ever had, I would argue, and it presents all kinds of new choices.  And we stand back and we say oh my God, it changes the world, change can be scary, and so we look at ways to forestall that change.  Well it’s not an insane analysis to see what could happen, but if all we do is manage our lives to the worst that can happen then we might as well move into the caves with Mr Bin Laden and Andrew.

Gareth Mitchell

Well that’s a bit of an extreme way of putting it, but this idea that somehow we’re scared of technology, I think if there’s any fear then surely it’s that fear that if we don’t click on that Twitter box, if we don’t sign up to that Facebook account, that we’ll be socially ostracised and accused by people like you, Jeff, of being a bit like Bin Laden in a cave.  That’s where the fear comes from, isn’t it?

Jeff Jarvis

No, not at all, I think that the point is that we can choose what to share and what not to share.  I had prostate cancer and I wrote about that in my blog and I told the entire world that my penis doesn’t work.  No one forced me to do that, I got incredible benefit out of that.  I got friends giving me advice, I inspired other men to get their PSA checked, good things came.  But no-one, but no-one was forcing me out of the prostate closet there.  The point here is that in the analysis that I made personally of whether or not I should keep this to myself or share this, I saw more benefit in sharing.  It’s an age of sharing.

Gareth Mitchell

And Andrew, it seems as if Jeff made that choice, it’s probably not a choice you would make, but at least the technology and the culture around it has allowed him to make that choice, surely a good thing?

Andrew Keen

I think Jeff’s right to say that we’re living in the age of sharing, but I'm a little nervous about that.  I hope I'm not Bin Laden in a cave.  But I think what you have, what we should understand is the role of the internet, not as an evil technology but as a thing that none of us really control and has its own momentum, its own dynamic.  John Doerr, the very powerful Silicon Valley venture capitalist that argued that we’re now in the third wave of technological revolution, and he called it the social, it comes after the invention of the PC and the internet.  And Jeff, it’s true that Jeff made the choice about revealing what happened to him.  But, as the internet is revolutionised, it’s not just Facebook, it’s Zynga, it’s Groupon, it’s Living Social, it’s this eruption of new social products, services, platforms, Twitter of course, it means that the generation to come I don’t think will have the choice that Jeff has the luxury to make.  He’s right now, most of us do have a choice, we don’t have to be on this platform, although the reality of the internet in the 21st century is if you choose not to be on it then you become by default Bin Laden in a cave and no-one wants to be either Bin Laden or in a cave.  And if we are to make the internet a civil place, the reality of 21st century life, where we actually live, and I think Jeff and I both agree that it is the reality, it’s no longer Second Life, we need to recalibrate publicness and privacy.  At the moment publicness is trouncing privacy, and there’s nowhere to hide on the internet and the internet hasn’t learnt how to forget, and the essential components of privacy are being, to excuse the pun, forgotten.

Jeff Jarvis

See this is where Andrew and I probably at the core most disagree.  My fear is the discussion is all about privacy and all about the fears of what could happen, and not enough about the benefits that can come from sharing.  In fact we are sharing, Andrew’s right there, that we just are doing it, I think there we agree very much, and so the question is are we going to be glass half empty or half full people when it comes to this analysis, and that’s where Andrew and I probably most differ.  And the worst case in my mind is that we miss opportunities.

Gareth Mitchell

But I would say that in the, literally in the last hour before this recording, I did one very public thing online, I tweeted something, everyone read it, then I wanted to send a private message to somebody, I emailed them.  That’s just a common sense attitude to using technology that most people are intelligent enough to use, that unifies both of you surely?

Andrew Keen

You're a boring moderate.  I mean even using the example of email, Zuckerberg and Facebook are trying to essentially appropriate email in their instant messaging system.  Young people aren’t using email any more, it’s arguable that email will eventually become as archaic as letter writing.  What worries me in the future is that all messaging will become by default public, in the way in which Twitter has become default public and Facebook would like to make itself default public.

Gareth Mitchell

How dare you accuse Jeff of being a boring moderate.  Oh sorry, you meant me.

Andrew Keen

No, that was you, not Jeff.  Jeff is anything but a boring moderate.

Gareth Mitchell

But surely though with Twitter, it never even pretended it was about privacy, you know, its whole tagline is tell the world what you're doing right now, whereas I can't ever imagine going into a scenario where it’s impossible to send a message from person A to person B without loads of people out there reading it.

Andrew Keen

No, no-one’s talking about it being impossible, I'm not arguing that technology will make it impossible to send private messages, but as we have these changing norms, I think we’re talking about the younger generation and the generation to come, as publicness, I mean as publicness becomes, and Jeff is probably happy about this, the default, the balance of power between privacy and publicness is being turned on its head.  I think it’s also important to note that Jeff always uses the example of choosing to publicise his own sickness or his, fortunately it’s not a sickness, it’s something he got over, but he does it very much in the terms of utility.  For him, the value of publicising his illness was that he got a lot of support and some people perhaps communicated with him information about his condition.  He’s thinking of publicness very much in utilitarian terms, and I think that Jeff is not a big fan of feelings, and I think that we need to remind ourselves of the value of feelings which can't be quantified and which are essential to the self, and which are very much at odds with the idea of publicness.

Jeff Jarvis

Feelings is a critical word here.  In 1890 when Brandeis wrote the key piece about privacy considerations in American law, what it came down to was exactly that, was an equation about feelings.  And what that really means is that the real physical harm that gets involved in discussions of privacy is very hard to determine.  It’s determined in some ways, if you have identity theft or things like that, but that’s really an issue of theft, that’s a crime against you.  What is privacy really?  It’s very, very, very hard to define, I've found, and I'm sure Andrew has as well, that there are many different definitions.

Andrew Keen

Yeah, but I think you may find it hard to define because it’s not quantifiable, and feelings aren’t quantifiable, whereas the utility one gains out of publicness are.  (Jeff Jarvis: True)  So I think what we’re seeing is a conflict between two ways of valuing things to the human beings, whether it’s utility or feelings.

Jeff Jarvis

And here becomes the problem.  If you then try to regulate around this, if you look at what Vivian Reading and the EU has been doing in this last month, in trying to find regulations where she wants privacy to be the default and to say that, you find I think that that has a huge impact on the development of the possibilities of the internet, that out of this regime of fear and concern and what could happen and what others might be thinking about us or might be saying about us, or what we, to govern around fear is difficult in an internet age that’s all about possibilities.

Gareth Mitchell

And Andrew, are you saying that publicness can only be utilitarian, that by its very nature it is unable to deal with the emotional?

Andrew Keen

Well I can think of some examples of publicness where the emotional is paramount, and I certainly don’t think we want to, you know, nationalism, extreme versions of nationalism, cults of the community which I'm very uncomfortable with.  But I want to come back to Jeff’s argument because I think he collapses any kind of attempt to regulate, any kind of attempt to legislate, to recalibrate the relationship between publicness and privacy in the digital age, as fear.  Everything for him comes down to fear, and I think that that is a reactionary argument.  It’s not necessarily true.  When I'm concerned about the impact of technology on privacy I'm not scared of technology, I don’t think that many of the people at the EU are scared of technology, not all legislation originates out of fear, it originates out of…

Jeff Jarvis

You're lamenting, you’re lamenting, the change that brings to life.  I'm celebrating that change.

Gareth Mitchell

But maybe by celebrating that change, Jeff, you give the impression that anybody who is less comfortable with it does so because they're scared of it.

Jeff Jarvis

Not at all, I'm trying to say that as we face change, you know, we tend to think that we've figured out what life is and it is what it is, and then something comes along that changes it in a huge way, and this is what we can see in history, we see it from Gutenberg’s press.  And the issue that I have is we don’t know where this goes yet, and so it is too soon to define appropriateness, we have yet to find our norms, the word that Andrew appropriately used earlier.  And so if you look at for example the book and Gutenberg, it took 50 years for its form to take shape, to leave its scribal roots, 100 years for the impact on society to be felt.  We are now at the year 1467 in its progression, and we don’t know what the shape of this new world is going to take yet, and so to try to define it now under old terms is itself a resistance to change.

Andrew Keen

I think that Jeff and I use different historical analogies.  He always uses the Gutenberg press and he sees all this in terms of media, whereas I see the comparison with the industrial revolution of the mid-19th century.   I think that the digital revolution is as profound as that and I would argue the industrial revolution is much more important than the invention of the book, or the mechanised book.  And I think if we were living in the 19th century, I mean we’re talking about some of the more extreme impact of the free market, of capitalism, of industrialisation, of the division between the social classes, and Jeff and I were having the same debate and I was saying well these extreme disparities in wealth, environmentalism, and he would keep on saying well you're just scared of change.  I mean he would make the same argument with respect to the green movement.  Just because one wants to calibrate and manage the impact of technology on one’s life and on society, doesn’t mean that one is fearful, that means that anyone who ever questions any element of technological change is a reactionary, and I don’t think that’s fair or true.

Jeff Jarvis

Our friend Gutenberg was the first industrialist, to a great extent, and I think presaged the industrial age, and the industrial age did indeed, you're quite right, bring tremendous change, and I think we’re leaving both those eras now, and that’s what’s happening, and we’re not sure what it leads to.  And so in the industrial age, things were owned and centralised and controlled and it was an economy and society built around products.  With the internet we return to a kind of pre-Gutenberg era of being built more around process and process is necessarily more open and thus more collaborative, and we have more chances to get into it and we have less control by the professionals whom you celebrated in your last book, and that’s frightening to that class of professionals.  I celebrate that we are now opening up post-industrial age to a new voice for the people, but that voice can be heard only if it is heard in public.

Gareth Mitchell

Now guys, I want to move on to talk about geolocation services and platforms, you know, things like Foursquare, where you check in in different places and your friends and your social contacts know where you are.  Now Jeff, I think that many would be rather outraged by this whole idea that we don’t just tell people what we’re doing, but where we’re doing it, it’s as if we’re inviting the surveillant society into our lives.  Is that a concern for you?

Jeff Jarvis

Well then don’t do, the first answer is don’t do it.  If you're on the lamb for a crime, my suggestion is don’t put your vacation pictures up on Flikr and don’t use Foursquare.  You see part of this is the assumption that people must be insane to be doing this, they're doing it for a reason, because they get serendipity, because they see people, because they recommend places, because they get data back out.  I think you first have to examine this not under the analogue of the way we used to do things, thus change is if not fearful, insane, and instead say well, people by the millions are choosing to tell where they are and there must be a reason why they do that, there must be something they get out of it, and you try to understand that.

Gareth Mitchell

So, okay, on the individual level people can choose whether they opt in or opt out, but this general trend towards divulging your location and all these other things is part of a whole process in which individuality and our right to privacy is being stripped away, and whether we like it or not we’re somehow complicit in that.

Jeff Jarvis

This, coming from a land where there’s cameras on every corner?

Gareth Mitchell

Well I didn’t put those cameras there.

Jeff Jarvis

The most videotaped nation on earth, that’s more of an issue of surveillance than me choosing as an individual to say where I am and to join up with others as a result.  I think you're sounding, you know, frankly I'm afraid to say it, but rather fearful here, whereas we have benefits when we get on a geolocation that can be amazing.  I’ll give you an extreme example here.  It is possible now, it’s not been implemented publicly but it is possible now to use facial recognition, to look at a photo, and that bothers some people, it might bother you.  The head of consumer protection in Germany has said that it is henceforth taboo forever to use facial recognition and geotechnology together.  Well that kind of mind-set says that’s obviously patently scary, we shouldn’t do that, that’s clearly a violation.  But imagine how you could use that kind of technology in Japan today to find people who are missing or not missing.  To have a new technology we haven’t even used yet and to say under our old analogues that it is wrong or creepy or scary or a violation, or just not the way we've always done things, is I think the wrong analysis of technology.  It is proper to say how could this be misused, because every technology will be misused, the technologies themselves are neutral to that, so I don’t object at all to thinking through what could go wrong and to try and to guard against that, but you don’t forbid it.

Andrew Keen

Yeah, and I don’t think, I don’t think, well I've certainly never argued that it should be forbidden, I don’t think anyone’s arguing that geolocation services should be forbidden, but I do think it’s important for us to understand what we are sliding into.  The internet is becoming ubiquitous, even the word the internet is losing any meaning, we will be networked wherever we are, whether it’s in the car or in the street, obviously on mobile, in all forms of wireless devices, and the technology that is emerging out of this isn’t just Foursquare or Goala or even Facebook or Twitter, it is this network world where we will, for better or worse, reveal where we are all the time to everybody else on the network, and more and more of the world’s population will be on the network.  In the past, and when we talk about the past, we’re talking about the rest of human history, people haven’t known where we are.  We've been able to escape the gaze of the camera, the gaze of our neighbour, the gaze of our parents, our wives, our children, but the world that we are falling into is one where we won't be able to escape the gaze.  Now it will be increasingly hard to switch the devices off, and I think that this is a fundamental area of disagreement with Jeff.

Jeff Jarvis

We disagree generally about the simple history here.

Andrew Keen

Jeff seems to think that we’re always in control of our behaviour and that everything that we do is a consequence of what we want, but this networked world that’s coming into being isn’t one that any of us have chosen and we have to live in it.

Jeff Jarvis

Oh Andrew, come no, come now.  We've certainly chosen it, why would 600 million people join Facebook, because they were forced at a gun point?  No.  I think your historical analogues here are wrong, that England was the birthplace of the notion of privacy, that we did live in villages, we were under the gaze constantly of our neighbours, there was not a sense of privacy, indeed privacy was seen in some quarters to be dangerous.  The reason that schools are called private schools in the UK, we call that privileged here because that was the poor, private people.  Publicness was a matter of privilege, privacy was a privation and until the invention of the central hallway in buildings in the UK, one had to go room to room and one’s business was done in one’s home, and there was very little sense of privacy.  So we’re actually kind of going back to that.

Andrew Keen

I think Jeff’s absolutely right, but this is the, I think this is the fundamental disagreement.  I celebrate the birth of individualism in historical terms.  I think it’s a good thing that we left the village, that we left the place where we weren’t able to hide.  Jeff seems to celebrate the fact that we’re going back to the village.  Zuckerberg, when he was given Time Magazine’s Person of the Year last year, the guy who gave him the award described the Facebook world, and it’s not just Facebook, it’s many, many other companies, described Facebook’s attempt to turn the world into a giant dorm room, a dorm room where everyone sees what everyone else is doing, and I don’t want to go back to that village.  I don’t have any desire to go back to a place where my neighbour, my relative, my husband or wife knows what I'm doing all the time.

Jeff Jarvis

Andrew, I believe that I celebrate individualism even more than you do, because the key tool of individualism is my freedom to speak, is my freedom to say what I want to say, where I want to say it, to whom I want to say it, and to not be expected to keep my mouth shut or to be private.  I celebrate the fact that we have these opportunities now and it is more to be an individual.  Now, part of that is that we also always are metering our relationship with the society around us, our obligation to that society, our duty to that society, and yes, we do not operate totally as individuals isolated from everyone else in a cave.  We operate to our great benefit as members of a society, and that does mean that that is our public role and our public voice and our public personality, and that I think is so much stronger now because we are individuals and we do have this tool and each one of us has the printing press.  We’re no longer bound by the fact that you, BBC, have this broadcasting tower and the rest of us don’t.  Well to heck with you, I now have my own broadcasting tower, I don’t need you any more and you in media to determine what is public and what is not.  I as an individual can stand out from the masses, so no Andrew, I celebrate individualism I think even much more than you do, but at least we both do.

Gareth Mitchell

And Andrew, isn’t it possible that we can stand out from the masses and also that we can credit ourselves with the intelligence of being able to manage that relationship with the digital and with the social, that we’re capable of going through the privacy settings on our social networking or switching our phone off and we don’t want to be disturbed.  It is surely possible for us to manage our social lives and our social lives in the digital space.

Andrew Keen

Yeah, let me be clear on Jeff, I don’t see him as a collectivist, I do think that he genuinely believes in individual rights and believes that these things can be calibrated.  I think, yeah I think we do need to, but I'm certainly not in favour of dismantling the internet or making it illegal to have a Facebook page or a socialised page or any of these other new social services, but we need calibration and I think we need external help.  I think we need, whether it’s government or parents or teachers, we need adults sometimes to step in and say hold on, where are we going here, this is not inevitable, we still can manage our technology and we need to recalibrate, we need to rebalance the relationship between the public and the private.  There have indeed been moments in history perhaps where privacy has dominated publicness too much, I'm not against publicness but at the moment the thing’s been turned on its head.  And I do think as we move forward, as the network becomes increasingly ubiquitous and central in our lives, we do need to make sure that there are laws and common understandings to rebuild privacy in the digital age, I think that’s the key, to protect privacy while at the same time to celebrate publicness.  I'm not against the idea of having a Facebook or a Twitter page, I have them myself.

Jeff Jarvis

I think we have more protectors than ever of privacy.  I think that able protectors such as you, Andrew, will assure that we do have more protection of privacy I believe than ever.  I think what we need is protectors of publicness, protectors of our individual rights to be public and protectors of the notion of the public square being owned as a public good, and not to be diminished.  In Germany, individuals can have the public views taken from a public street of their homes blurred on street view, well that’s a diminishment of a public good and I think we need protectors against that kind of fear.

Gareth Mitchell

Do you think that the fact that we’re having this discussion is simply a symptom that we’re all coming to grips with the digital space, you know, all this has just come about really in the last five to ten years.  Are we going to reach an equilibrium maybe where the Keens and the Jarvises are sort of equally happy I suppose?

Andrew Keen

Will there be a compromise?  I hope so, and I think in this way, I mean this is a BBC World Service programme, a lot of people are listening from around the world and Europe and the US, I think there probably needs to be a balance between the European and the American view, because I think in America Jeff’s view on sort of the paramount right of the individual to do whatever they like and there not being any need for any external controls, whereas in Europe I think people are much more worried about the impact of technology on individual and collective life.  So I do think that there is a need for some compromise between sort of an American free market libertarianism where nothing is controlled and the European solution which tends to lend itself and lead to more government intervention.  I tend to be more in the European camp but I think there are ways that Europe can also learn from America in the value of innovation and in the faith in technology.

Jeff Jarvis

I think that where we would agree is that what we’re trying to do, what we’re struggling to do is to reset society’s norms around these changes.  I think we’d agree that there are huge changes occurring and there are a few reactions to that.  One is to try to forestall the change or to try to prevent its impact and to hold onto things that are dear to us, and we’ll do that in some cases, and in other cases it’s for society to change because it has new opportunities to act differently.  I think that in terms of the geographical analysis, it goes beyond just Europe and America, it goes to issues such as the way this would be handled and is being handled in China and Iran, and other countries where there is a major attempt by governments to control this medium, which will be impossible, and we see that, proof of that in Egypt and Tunisia, and I think that what we have to do, I would argue, is to worry about what I would say are not just the principles of privacy but the principles of publicness and that they deserve protection along with the tools of publicness that now have given us these incredible choices.  And I fear well-meaning EU regulators trying to define the new world as the old and thus also forestall opportunities of this new world, but I fear much more that China and companies that support it will find ways to give us the lowest common denominator of freedom, the high watermark of regulation and constriction in this new world, and I think we have to gang together as citizens of this new world, of this 8th continent as someone calls it, and protect the principles of our future.

Andrew Keen

Can I just add one thing, that I think that a healthy public sphere requires a healthy private sphere as well.

Jeff Jarvis

Yeah, we’ll agree, absolutely they depend upon each other.

Andrew Keen

Right, and for one to work the other also needs to be healthy.  And if you want to compare a healthy society, I think in my view at least, with an unhealthy one in Iran or China, what you see in Iran and China is an unhealthy public and private realm where publicness and privacy are both essentially controlled by the government, so I'm certainly not in favour of that solution.

(30’16”)

This is an extended version of the interview broadcast on Click on BBC World Service Radio, 19th April 2011.

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