“Privacy is an obstacle to innovation”.  This is a common argument when policy debates on privacy protection in the digital age reach the negotiation tables. And it seems to be the main argument behind the heavy lobbying efforts invested  by the industry in the discussions flourishing around the EU data protection reform. Thinking about the “Cloud” and “Big Data”, where data portability since the dawn of the digital age has been the essence of innovative development, it does indeed sound as an obstacle to then want to “protect data”. The concepts Portability and Protection do not sound very well in constellation. But it is all noise. How about embracing the opportunities of the open net and the autonomous private sphere simultaneously? All we need is a different mindset,  business model and tool kit.

Meeting new requirements in new ways

You might as well turn the claim that “privacy is an obstacle to innovation” around and state that innovation is an obstacle to privacy, which is a statement just as obscure as the other. Both statements exclude the other. Both statements are based on exclusive ideas about what respectively privacy and innovation means.

To meet the requirements of the digital age we need to look at privacy and innovation as fields of opportunity. Some of the most promising and innovative business ideas at present are for example the ones that take privacy as a point of departure.They are based on models that empower users to own their own data, to be in control by returning their initial choice to decide what they share with who, when and where. You might want to see this as only protection. I prefer to see it as innovation.

Privacy is in fact innovation. The lack of it can dampen creativity and suppress freedom of speech (and thus thought). And more of it may entice consumers to pay more and choose a specific service studies show. The only reason the default today is public is that we were not innovative enough to think the human narrative into the equation from the beginning.

Take a look at the latest trend in social media applications and services like Snapchat that allow multimedia messages to “self destruct” after reception or the “private” messaging and sharing service Path that explicitly emphazises on its about-page that “Path should be private by default. Forever. You should always be in control of your information and experience”.  They are not the best examples of actual privacy enhancing services, but they are examples of what people want. Rising in popularity, these services are built on the view that sharing in the traditional broad sense of the word is not a very innovative idea. Anyone can create a medium. But can you create a social network based on actual human relations?   These services are actually meeting new requirements in new ways, which is what innovation is all about.  They are an evolution of our online social spheres moving beyond the idea of the social medium to a more advanced idea about digital media as tools for human social relations. And they are actually moving in on old giants of social networking such as Facebook stealing their market shares.

Now all we need to do is to combine innovation with ethics. The most promising examples of “Privacy as Innovation” are of course the ones that do not only use privacy as a marketing stunt. These e.g. count  the Indie Tech Phone, the Dark Mail Alliance and the Black Phone.  The core value of these services is the innovative and ethical ideas they are built on about data ownership and the delicate balance of the power relations between the individual and the institutions (public and private) today.

My question to you is what core principles do we want this alternative internet to be built on?