The Three Momentous Stages of Online Privacy

Part of my introduction to the Privacy as Innovation session at the Internet Governance Forum, Bali, 2013 with references

The history of privacy online has lived through three momentous stages. An early stage in which “anonymity”, was approached as the unique opportunity to experiment with identity (Turkle, 1995) and gender (Haraway,1991) and challenge under its protection established forms of power and constituted market models (May 1992, Vinge 2001). At this stage, specific attention was paid to the new empowering tools offered by the Internet for civic engagement and social participation, and their fundamental link with the unique characteristics of “anonymity” and “privacy” offered by the Internet (Article 29 Working Party, Recommendation, “Anonymity on the Internet, 1997). The discourse was based on an experience of the Internet as a fundamentally open, social and free territory where old social, market and exchange models do not apply.

That stage was followed by a second stage in which “privacy” and “anonymity” gained more negative connotations, e.g. blamed for aiding and effecting identity theft, trolling (Donath 1998), bullying (Kowalski, Limber, & Agatston, 2008), terrorism, and illegal sharing of copyrighted material (Armstrong, Forde, 2003). Privacy was at this stage also deemed by some as obsolete or “no longer a social norm” (Zuckerberg, 2010). It was described as an obstacle to innovation, juxtaposed to everything “social”, “open”, “public and shared” and contrasted to open innovation in “cloud services”, “big data” and “social media” (Cohen, 2012:1). And yet, even under these changing cultural conditions, vocal voices consistently reminded us why privacy, or the individual ability to choose the boundaries of what is private and public online, remained a basic demand strongly rooted in our law and cultural understanding of the human defining condition of choice and separation of contexts and social roles and identities (Cohen, 2012:2). This dichotomy of views on privacy has been strongly embedded in the Internet’s history, as a fundamentally open, social, public, free medium that struggles to combine the demands for privacy and anonymity and the expectation of safeguards for the protection of personal data with always evolving methods of surveillance, tracking, internet censorship and automated electronic systems of retention and correlation of personal data (Solove 2011, Lessig 2006).

The third stage comprises a paradigm shift, which among others entails a renewed focus on privacy and ethical big data as the foundation for the evolution of digital media businesses that more critically understand digital media as an evolving architecture of human social relations, and privacy as a new basic market demand. It builds on social change illustrated in mounting trends in user strategies to navigate safely and anonymously online and consequently a rising success n services and applications that promise increased user control over data. This is what “privacy as innovation” is all about.

Armstrong, H.L., Forde, P.J. “Internet Anonymity Practices in Computer Crime”, Information Management & Computer Security, Vol. 11, 2003

Cohen, Julie E., “What Privacy is for”, Harvard Law Review, Vol. 126, Georgetown University Law Centre, 2012:1

Cohen, Julie E., Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code and the Play of Everyday Practice, Yale University Press, 2012: 2

Donath, Judith S. : “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community” in Kollock, P. and Smith M. (eds). Communities in Cyberspace, Routledge 1998

Harraway, Donna, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge, 1991

Kowalski, Robert M. Limper, Susan P., Agatston, Patricia W., Cyber Bullying, Blackwell Publishing, 2008

Lessig, Lawrence, Code 2.0: Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Basic Book, (1999) 2006

May, Timothy C. ,“The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto”, Nov. 1992

Solove, Daniel J.: Nothing to Hide: The False Trade off Between Privacy and Security, Yale University Press, 2011

Turkle, Sherry, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, Simon & Schuster, 1995

Vinge, Vernor (ed. James Frenkel), True Names: And the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier, A Tor Book, Tom Doherty Associates, 2001

Zuckerberg, Mark, quoted in “Privacy is no longer a social norm, says Facebook founder”, The Guardian, 11 January 2010

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