LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” Much has changed in the 20 years since Scott McNealy dismissed complaints about the nascent Big Brothers of internet commerce. For example, in the European Union it now takes several extra keystrokes to locate the quote from the chief executive of then-Big Tech firm Sun Microsystems, and to officially abandon that little bit of internet privacy.
People generally do check the boxes, because basically McNealy was right, at least in open societies. Why? The 25-year-old Mark Zuckerberg gave a good partial explanation in 2010. “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”
This insight helps explain the enormous success of Facebook, which Zuckerberg founded and still controls. The vast majority of the social network’s 2.4 billion users are eager, or at least willing, to share much of their personal lives with friends, acquaintances, companies and idea-mongers.
In fact, it is hard to tell what people really think about the Facebook package, with its targeted advertising and propaganda. Mistrust might be greater if more users understood how much data they are sharing and how the information is used. Some customers might prefer to pay a fee for more privacy and less personalised advertising, but Facebook does not offer that option. Few people quit the social network entirely, but that means little, since the company has a near-monopoly in providing a valuable social service.
Many anti-Facebook campaigners do think privacy is a big deal. For example, Zuckerberg’s original business partner Chris Hughes mentioned the issue several times in his recent New York Times article which argued for breaking up the company. However, the issues of internet privacy are unlikely to be resolved soon, even if Facebook is dismembered and its successor companies more heavily regulated.
Whatever the rules are, there will always be conflicts, because there is nothing like an absolute right to privacy. People live in communities, which are public by definition, and every society limits secrecy. The boundaries of the internet society are still being drawn, but it is far too late to go backwards to a less intrusive age. The new pool of big data is far too useful – to normal citizens as well as to companies and governments – to be drained.
Of course, customers do not want unlimited sharing. For example, they want to keep their credit card details out the hands of criminals. However, most privacy issues require much more time and expertise than even customers with above-average knowledge want to invest in privacy decisions. Sensibly enough, they now tick the box to provide the consent required by the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and hope for the best.
All internet privacy decisions require expert advice, and some also need a fair bit of political courage. In particular, the forces behind the erosion of truth on the internet will not easily abandon one their most valuable tools: detailed information from millions of users.
To be clear, information-sharing is not the principal reason that the alarming slide into mass deception has gone so far. Ideology is the main problem. Too many technology industry leaders trusted in the rationality of human nature or believed that a competitive market of ideas would protect the truth. McNealy was in the latter group, describing himself as a “raging libertarian”.
That sort of thinking opened the internet up to people with a more realistic understanding of the power of groupthink and deception. And these contemporary masters of propaganda are thrilled with their access to detailed personal data. They can attune their arguments and images to each user’s tastes, income and political views.
This practice is too well established to be controlled easily, even after the internet giants fully outgrow their utopian and libertarian fantasies. Flagrant liars can be kicked off the net, but it will be much harder to restrain more subtle but equally unscrupulous political movements and commercial advertisers. They can easily identify the users who are most vulnerable to emotion-laden half-truths.
However, these political and commercial scavengers are not the most frightening users of personal information. The greatest danger comes from the domestic political authorities. Historical limits on state power have proven inadequate for the internet’s torrent of individualised data.
China is terrifying example number one. With the mandatory cooperation of private companies, the authorities monitor and increasingly limit the movements, communications and purchases of vast numbers of people who have been identified as actual or possible dissidents. In the Xinjiang region, thought crimes on the internet can lead to time in one of the region’s “re-education camps”.
The totalitarian governments of the 20th Century made extensive and remarkably effective use of mass media. In the 21st Century, governments interested in thought control can take advantage of much more powerful media, two-way and carefully personalised. With that tool, there really is almost no privacy. And box-checking will not help anyone get over it.
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