“Privacy is a cultural construct”… Now, what’s next?

It is not as important to look for a new definition of the very contents of the concept of privacy as it is crucial to find acceptable common standards for the organizing principles of privacy today.

These past days at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) we’ve moved a step closer to a common understanding of what ‘Privacy’ means today. The right to privacy has been in the forefront, although the very concept of privacy has also been announced dead on several occasions as well as a rather constant emphasis on privacy’s cultural construction. “Privacy is a cultural construct that may vary in different social and cultural contexts”. This statement is of course aimed at creating an inclusive discussion among stakeholders about privacy, but I worry that it may do more harm than good.

Cultural constructs define our reality and this is perhaps why we at different points in history have seen the need to have showdowns with variations of these. But the concepts always managed to survive in one form or another if they were seen important enough for the general functioning of society.

Although seemingly a fact of nature, ‘Time’ is for example a cultural construct. At the turn of the last century ‘Time’ was, just like privacy, announced dead. The rigid factory clock time of society was challenged as unnatural to the fluid time of the individual. Modernist artists and authors officially killed off the Newtonian ’cause and effect’ time, thus narrative of human existence, with disruptive narratives and imaging, and scientists and philosophers challenged its natural constitution with relativist theories. We still wake up in the morning when the alarm clock rings, organize online meetings across time zones and manage to log on at the same time. Time was challenged because of its stiffening effect on the freedom of the individual, but continued its existence because of its significance.

To emphasise the volatile nature of culturally constructed concepts is great when you need to challenge societal norms and rules that effect the freedom of the individual. But if we do it too much and for too long to the concept of privacy it might actually have the opposite effect. One could argue that to emphasise the volatile nature of the concept of privacy in politics is actually a dangerous move as this might lead some to the conclusion that the concept has no common meaning to society and thus no significance.

Time didn’t die. It continues to be an organizing principles of our everyday lives. We managed to agree on time zones and a standard time and to some extend at the same time recognize the changeable nature of individual time. Global society defined key common organizing principles for the local and global functioning of society.

And so should the concept of privacy be approached today. Privacy cannot die, it will not die, but the organizing principles of how we might control the contexts of the culturally variable content of privacy, are changing and we of course need to change with them. Rather than announcing privacy dead and focus on its contents, we need to agree and hold on fiercely to acceptable common organizing principles. I look forward to ‘move on’ this year and at the next IGF.

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