Today, President Obama unveiled a proposal for an internet ‘bill of rights’:
“American consumers can’t wait any longer for clear rules of the road that ensure their personal information is safe online,” said Mr. Obama.
In a lot of ways, this is to be applauded. The idea, as reported in the media, is to “give consumers greater online privacy protection”, which for privacy advocates and researchers such as myself is of course a most laudable aim. Why, then, am I somewhat wary of what is being proposed? Anyone who works in the field is of course naturally sceptical – but there’s more to it than that. There’s one word in Obama’s statement, repeated without real comment in the media reports that I’ve read, that is crucial. That word is ‘consumers’.
Consumers, citizens or human beings?
The use of the word ‘consumer’ has two key implications. First of all, it betrays an attitude to the internet and to the people who use it. If we’re consumers, that makes the net a kind of ‘product’ to be consumed. It makes us passive rather than active. It means we don’t play a part in the creation of the net – and it means that the net is all about money and the economy, rather than about communication, about (free) expression, about social interaction, about democratic discourse and participation. It downplays the political role that the net can be played – and misunderstands the transformations that have gone on in the online world over the last decades. The net isn’t just another part of the great spectrum of ‘entertainment’ – much though the ‘entertainment’ industry might like to think it is, and hence have free rein to enforce intellectual property rights over anything else.
That’s not to downplay the role of economic forces on the net – indeed, as I’ve argued many times before, business has driven many of the most important developments on the net, and the vast expansion and wonderful services we all enjoy have come from business. Without Google, Facebook and the like, the internet would be a vastly less rich environment than it is – but that’s not all… and treating users merely as ‘consumers’ implies that it is.
The second, perhaps more sinister side to portraying us all as consumers rather than citizens – or even human beings – is that it neatly sidesteps the role that governments have in invading rather than protecting our privacy. Treating us as consumers, and privacy as a ‘consumer right’, makes it look as though the government are the ‘good guys’ protecting us from the ‘bad’ businesses – and tries to stop us even thinking about the invasions of privacy, the snooping, the monitoring, the data gathering and retention, done by governments and their agencies.
Big Brother is watching you…
The reality is, of course, that governments do snoop, they do gather information, they do monitor our activities on social networks and so forth. What’s more, we should be worried about it, and we should be careful about how much we ‘let’ them do it. We need protection from government snooping – we need privacy rights not just as consumers, but as citizens. Further, as I’ve argued elsewhere, rights to privacy (and other rights) on the internet can be viewed as human rights – indeed I believe they should be viewed as human rights. From an American perspective, this is problematic – but it should at least be possible to cast privacy rights on the net as civil rights rather than consumer rights.
…and so are his commercial partners
At the same time, however, Obama is right that we need protection from the invasions of privacy perpetrated by businesses. For that reason, his initiative should be applauded, though his claiming of credit for the idea should be treated with scepticism, as similar ideas have been floating around the net for a long time – better late than never, though.
There is another side to it that may be even more important – the relationship between businesses and governments. They’re not snooping on us, or invading our privacy independently – in practice, and in effect, the biggest problems can come when they work together. Facebook gathers the data, encourages us to ‘share’ information, to ‘self-profile’ – and then governments use the information that Facebook has gathered. Email systems, telephone services, ISPs and the like may well gather information for their own purposes – but through data retention they’re required not only to keep that information for longer than they might wish to, but to make it available to authorities when the ‘need’ arises.
Worse, authorities may encourage or even force companies to build ‘back-doors’ into their products so that ‘when needed’ the authorities can use them to tap into our conversations, or to discover who we’ve been socialising with. They may require that photos on networks are subject to facial recognition analysis to hunt down people they wish to find for some reason or other – legitimate or otherwise. Facebook may well build their facial recognition systems for purely commercial reasons – but that doesn’t mean that others, including the authorities, might use them for more clearly malign purposes.
We need protection from both
So what’s the conclusion? Yes, Obama’s right, we need protection from commercial intrusions into our privacy. That, however, is just a small part of what we need. We need protection as human beings, as citizens, AND as consumers. Don’t let’s be distracted by looking at just a small part of the picture.