One of my great interests is in the area of online privacy: or more importantly the fine line where we cross from “safety net” into a big brother culture (a la 1984). I have to admit, though, to never fully considering my views in a cohesive matter. For example I always advocate and support the basic right to never have anyone snooping into your personal information. Whereas on the other hand I am heavily swayed by the arguments for checking at least some of the packets passing through ISP’s. Obviously there is some incompatibility there.
Luckily I had the chance to chat with some friends earlier which helped me clear up my attitude to this. I’m still an advocate of the idea that we cant claim “privacy privacy privacy” every time a new initiative is suggested – at some point we have to adopt a system to help protect people (which in it’s very nature insists on breaking down our privacy barriers). The question, I think, is where to draw the line.
Actionary or Reactionary
One of the points made to me was that the best approach might be to protect our rights to privacy until the problems became bad enough to force us to relent and compromise. Aka react to the problem as it develops. This is a fair approach in some circumstances but I think in this case it is the wrong one. For 3 very simple reasons:
- It would ultimately (I believe) lead to greater invasion into our lives because each compromise would be a tiny step away from absolute privacy. The ability to move further in lots of small steps opposed to one larger is well known and I think that is what would occur.
- It ignores the people who fall victim whilst we are still not implementing solutions. One factor we cant overlook is the additional basic right to protection and deliberately leaving future victims to their fate whilst we wait for our hand to be forced is somewhat unforgivable.
- Ultimately the problem will be larger and harder to handle – we will be forced to confront a well established network of criminality and illegal content (some of which, by it’s nature, will have become ingrained in society as “not that bad”; P2P being a case in point). Facing issues like that will be impossible.
The only outcome to that is internet anarchy and lawlessness. As with anything in the world the bad massively overpowers the good – on the internet “bad” people really have no limitations. By making that a right we are not protecting our interests but allowing them free run to crap on us.
The Right to Protection
This is an issue I probably feel most strongly on. It is always claimed that the biggest factor at stake is our basic right to privacy. And I agree that this is a hugely important right (up there with freedom of speech). However so many people ignore the idea that we have a right to be protected as well. To assume everyone is equally able to look out for themselves is idiocy – the world does not work like that. Some people are smarter than others and some of those will prey on the portion of the population weaker than them. Look at the huge profits made by scammers. Also consider those people taken advantage of in real life (for example child pornography victims) for internet based gains.
My argument is that we also have a right to be protected by society from people eager to take advantage of us. Especially in the case where we are completely defenceless (and so many people are). Those that argue that we should have a right to 100% privacy are denying others such protection.
The Thin Red Line
Lets take a real life example. That of Freedom of Speech against our basic right to be free from offence. I wholeheartedly agree that free speech is the most important tennant in society however think of this: would someone stood on a street corner with a megaphone claiming that women should be enslaved and subserviant be tolerated? I would imagine not – I am sure he would soon be moved on by the authorities. And yet he has a basic right to air his views to the world. The line that is drawn is the one by society which says his view is so radically different from all the ideals of humanity he should not be allowed to preach it publicly.
Perhaps he reached some people who would later contact him to discuss it more – perhaps an underground movement grows up and, eventually, some women are enslaved. It’s unlikely isnt it? But still a possibility. Society decides he cant shout these views in the street but that it is safe for him to think these things in private because on the weight of it they probably will come to nothing
Now imagine that man is a Muslim and is preaching the death of non-Muslims (this seems to be the current raw nerve so lets prod it). Would he be moved on in the same way as our “women as slaves” preacher? I suspect not – because chances are that could come to something. People could well be killed or hurt. I imagine in this example the preacher would be put on trial for spreading his hate.
The important difference between the 2 is not their views (because both are, in my opinion, totally horrific) but on how society judges their threat. One is a greater threat and so he is jailed, the other will garner no respect from the populace for his views but is unlikely to hurt many others (if any). Perhaps the police will check he isnt abusing his wife but that would be the end of it. My point is that society has made a judgement call on how far to supress someones right to free speech. We have recognised it is not a case of “all or nothing” and that some people should be reigned in by common consensus.
Shouldn’t society judge what is fair privacy/freedom?
The Right to Privacy is not a Licence to do what You Like
Now we have a somewhat better definition of the problem. The issue is, as I see it, about finding a common consensus between our rights to privacy and protection. Of course I recognise that the former will hold more weight in this balance but to give it 100% seems wrong. By deciding that everyone is allowed to do what they like without interference is akin to saying we may do anything without recrimination: which is, surely, not what we mean to achieve.
Instead I think we have to recognise privacy for what it is: the right for us to live a normal life without the bother of constantly having our activities monitored and questioned. Once we reach that agreement perhaps we can look forward into ways to protect others without enroaching on privacy.
I want to take a quick aside into the issue of band wagons. I honestly believe that a lot of people are jumping on the privacy train because they desperately dont want dark secrets airing in public (of course I am NOT accusing the majority of this: but in my experience some of the most outspoken, most unswayable advocates are out to protect their closet of skeletons). This is derailing the issue somewhat – because such people refuse to compromise, ever. This creates a culture for those willing to (even just) consider those compromises to reject them out of hand (or be branded a traitor to the cause). Ultimately I think we have to reach a compromise and that the first step should be to oust the radicals in both camps.
Our Right to Compromise
I mentioned before that this post was inspired by a discussion I had with some friends. I want to quote verbatim one of my messages from there because I think it sums up my conclusions nicely.
Im not saying that ditching something that invades privacy on those grounds is denying victims the right to protection, however denying ALL things that might invade privacy IS denying that right. Similairly implementing cameras in every room on the basis that protection is the greater good (debatable) is clearly denying an important right to privacy
What I am saying is that there is surely a balance where some aspects of privacy are exposed (in a limited way) so that others are protected (aka a middle ground – which would obviously be tilted in favour of privacy because that is the majority; I do think that certain people need to understand you *cant* protect everyone and we shouldnt ever try!)
“We cant protect everyone and we shouldn’t ever try”
For a start it would be a pipe dream to attempt it. But also it is basic humanity that someone somewhere will be at a disadvantage – equality cannot and does not work. But what we perhaps can do is attempt to lessen the difference between the victims and the criminals: to bring them closer to the majority sat in the middle. And perhaps we can do it without sacrficing every right to privacy that the majority holds.
Deep packet inspection is wrong because the potential for the data to be used for other means (who trusts their governments right?!). On the other hand it could pretty much stamp out some of the worst internet crime. The arguments for both sides are compelling – but is there not a compromise. Is there not a form of packet inspection that will ensure legitimate data is never stored, accessed, misplaced or adversely used (really computers, as blind logicians, are perfectly trusted for such a task!) but still impact on the crime. Even if it cuts just 40% surely that is a win all round!
Im not suggesting that a form packet inspection is the way forward (I dont think it is). One concept we discussed, though in little detail, was finding some way to crowd source the problem – allowing us as a collective to identify the bad people amongst us and drive them out! Certainly that might not work either (for example because in a lot of cases it would require a dissenter to break open a community – which probably wouldnt happen in most cases) but it is at least progressing the discussion with new and interesting ideas. Definitely crowd sourcing is more in keeping with the ideal that society and not the establishment should od the monitoring.
Basically, though, this is a plea from the man in the middle – lets ignore extremism and our fear of compromise. I have no solutions, no magic fix; but if we sit down and talk about it I am sure one will pop up. Lets be actionary – not reactionary!