Players and Pawns in the Game of Privacy

Privacy is pretty constantly in the news at the moment. People like me can hardly take their eye off the news for a moment. This morning I was trying to do three things at once: follow David Allen Green’s evidence at the Leveson inquiry (where amongst other things he was talking about the NightJack story which has significant privacy implications), listen to Viviane Reding talking about the new reforms to the data protection regime in Europe, and discover what was going on in the emerging story of 02‘s apparent sending of people’s mobile numbers to websites visited via their mobile phones….

Big issues… and lots of media coverage… and lots of opportunities for academics, advocates of one position or other, technical experts and so forth to write/talk/tweet/blog etc on the subject. And many of us are taking the opportunity to say our bit, as we like to do. A good thing? Yes, in general – because perhaps the biggest change I’ve seen over the years I’ve been researching into the field is that the debate is wider, bringing in more people and more subjects, and getting more public attention – which must, overall, be a good thing. The more the issues are debated and thought about, the more chance there is that we can get better understanding, some sort of consensus, and find better solutions. And yet there are dangers attached to the process – because as well as the people who have valuable things to say and good, strong ethical positions to support their case, there are others with much more questionable agendas, often hidden, who would like to use others for their own purposes. Advocates, academics and experts need to guard against being used by others with very different motives.

There are particular examples happening right now. One subject that particularly interests me, about which I’ve blogged and written many times before, is the right to be forgotten. Viviane Reding has talked about it in the last few days – and there have been reactions in both directions. Both, it seems to me, need to be wary of their being used in ways that they don’t intend:

i) Those who oppose a ‘right to be forgotten’/’right to delete’ need to be careful that they’re not being used as ‘cover’ for those whose business models depend on the holding and using of personal data. The right to delete is a threat to their business models, and they can (and probably will) use all the tools at their disposal to oppose it, including using ‘experts’ and academics. The valid concerns about censorship/free expression aren’t what those people care about – they want to be able to continue to use people’s personal data to make money. Advocates for free expression etc need to be careful that they’re not being used in that kind of way.

ii) Conversely, those who (like me) advocate for a ‘right to be forgotten’/’right to delete’ need to be careful that they’re not being used by those who wish to censor and control – because there IS a danger that a poorly written and executed right to be forgotten could be set up in that kind of way. I don’t believe that’s what’s intended by the current version, nor to I believe that this is how it would or could be used, but it’s certainly possible, and people on ‘my’ side of the argument need to be vigilant that it doesn’t go that way.

Similar arguments can be used in other fields – for example about the question of the right to anonymity. Those who (like me) espouse a right to anonymity need to be careful about not providing unfettered opportunities for those who wish to bully, to defame etc., while those who support the reverse – an internet with real name/identification systems throughout, to control access to age-sensitive sites, to deal with copyright infringement etc – need to be very careful not to be used as an excuse for setting up systems which allow control and ultimately oppression.

So what does this all mean? Should academics and other ‘experts’ simply keep out of the blogosphere and the media, and leave their musings for academic journals and unreadable books? Certainly not – but we do need to be a little more thoughtful about the agendas of those who might use us, who might misquote us, who might take us out of context and so forth. I suspect that this might have been what happened to Vint Cerf when he wrote a short while ago suggesting that internet access was not a human right. Others might well have been trying to use him… as they might well try to use any of those who write in this kind of a field. However clever we might think we are, we’re very often pawns in the game, not players.

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