Mr. Peter Fleischer is Google, Inc.’s, Global Privacy Counsel, and recently wrote an intriguing blog on how the term “privacy” is being used as a justification for censorship these days. Outside of the United States, especially in Canada and EU countries, the Right to Privacy is seen as a fundamental universal right bestowed upon the individual. The French have proposed “le Doit a l’Oubli” to the upcoming amendment of the EU Privacy Directive. As Mr. Fleischer points out, there is no real direct English translation for this word, but loosely it means “Right to Oblivion.” In the age of social media, where pictures of us doing things from our past, (i.e. doing a keg stand at the base of El Capitan in Yosemite during high school, etc.), or unsavory comments are made in an Internet chat room, should we have the right to remove those things from the Web or allow them to “let be” for the whole world to see until eternity (or at least until someone pulls the plug on the Internet)?
Privacy as a justification for censorship now crops up in several different, but related, debates: le droit a l’oubli, the idea that content (especially user-generated content on social networking services) should auto-expire, the idea that data collection by companies should not be retained for longer than necessary, the idea that computers should be programmed to “forget” just like the human brain. All these are movements to censor content in the name of privacy. If there weren’t serious issues on both sides of the debate, we wouldn’t even be talking about this.
While the framework of Mr. Fleischer’s thesis around censorship and privacy is reasonable, he does miss on one important concept, and it directly deals with how American’s view “privacy” compared to the rest of the world. The word “privacy” does not exist in the U.S. Constitution (it is interpreted under the 4th and 14th Amendments), and the interpretation of privacy can be argued to only apply to the government’s intrusion upon an individual’s privacy (not, for instance, a private compay). Expectation of privacy is not the same as expectation of confidence (I’m not talking about the kind of “confidence” a pugilist has before a big fight). If my best friend takes pictures of our latest “guys weekend in Vegas,” the expectation if he posts the photos onto Facebook is not one of privacy, but rather one of confidence. Intuitively, the simple act of posting the picture to Facebook has unveild the expectation of privacy. What I’m expecting is that by posting photos of my Vegas weekend on Facebook, I’m putting trust, or confidence, in my best friend that he, and Facebook, will not share them with anyone outside of our designated circle. Just who we “designate” as our circle of friends is where the tension starts. We all have BBF’s who are BBF’s with people we can’t stand, and now you add in a social media company to the mix (who has its own set of BBF’s), and there is bound to be conflict. I equate this to back in the day when you were on the playfield at school, and you wanted to pick your best friend for dodgeball, but your bitter rival picked him/her first (for the unitiated, BBF means Best Best Friend).
Those pictures of me taken at my guys weekend in Vegas may not tell the whole story of what went on, and therefore I really only have three choices: (1) ostrich approach – do nothing, bury head in sand, and hope no one sees it; (2) le Doit a l’Oubli (i.e. tell your buddy to take it down, and hope no one else has copied it); or (3) post a message, or other pictures, explaining that the Go-Go dancer was dancing for a non-profit charity (could possibly be digging myself deeper than I want).
The debate over privacy has more to do with the universal right to control our image than anything else. We lose this ability once we download a picture to Facebook, or a comment is posted about us on a referral Web site. Perception versus reality is the struggle we face in a Web 2.0 world – le Doit a l’Oubli. Who we perceive ourselves to be, and what people really see us for – that’s the debate, and citizen’s are mandating that we get some of that control back for which companies have taken from us. While I may not have a problem checking my medical files on line, I do have a problem with the online medical file service selling that data to an insurance company thereby raising my insurance rates.
There is no expectation of privacy on the Internet. However, Internet users do have an expectation that is based on the establishment of a relationship, express or implied, whereby the individual and third-party acts as trusted agents to hold certain information in confidence. This is like trying to connect two positively charged magnets or serving two masters. One magnet is charged by maximizing shareholder expectation, and the other magnet is charged by simple human behavior/interaction. Prior to the Internet, human behavior and interaction did not need a third-party provider <gulp> we had to walk over to the girl and ask her to dance. Now, we live in a world where if you ask one girl to dance, she may be dancing with another person at the same time, and that could be someone you don’t like. It is hard to tango with three people – le Doit a l’Oubli.