So…You Want to Redefine ‘Privacy’, eh?

There has been a sustained argument across the ‘net and in traditional circles, that privacy is being redefined before our very eyes. Oftentimes, we see how a word transforms by studying its etymology – this is helpful in understanding the basis of the words that we utter. What do we do, however, when we work to redefine not just a word’s definition (such as what the term ‘cool’ refers to) but its normative horizons?

In redefining the work ‘privacy’ to account for how people are empirically protecting their privacy, are we redefining the word, or the normative horizon that it captures? Moreover, can we genuinely assume that the term’s normative guide is changing simply because of recent rapid changes in technology increase the difficulty in exercising our right to privacy in digitized environments? To argue that these normative boundaries are shifting largely because of how digital networks have been programmed presupposes that the networks cannot be designed in any other way, that digital content will flow as it does now the same way that gravity acts on our physical bodies as it presently does. The difficulty in maintaining such an analogy is that it assumes that there are natural laws to an immanent programming languages that structure how we can participate in digital environments.

Free speech is being seen as an increasingly important and far-ranging right – a recent example has free speech being tangled up in American copyright law. In environments where entrepreneurs strive to develop intimate, personalized social networking sites where users can subsequently be targeted with surgical precision, precision that increases with each piece of information that is given up to large data aggregators, it is important for societies to evaluate whether these new digital meeting places accord with our reasonable expectations to privacy. Cottrell, in a Wired article, puts the threat to personal privacy quite nicely when stating;

The thing about consumer privacy is it’s really a death from a thousand cuts. With any given click or any given web page the loss of information is usually very subtle. The fact that you may get more spam or pay more for flowers because you live in a wealthy ZIP code are just single drops in a tsunami of privacy violations.(Source)

While researchers typically focus on teens and their willingness to disclose damn near anything about themselves in the course of their daily online actions, those same researchers don’t seem to be factoring in the number of MSN, AIM, MySpace, Facebook, et cetera blocks that individuals establish to prevent specific others from knowing about them. In ‘traditional’ environments (i.e. those that humans have been living in for centuries) avoiding someone was one way of asserting a right to privacy insofar as it asserts a right to seclusion from specific others. Individuals have signed up in droves to different ‘Don’t Call’ phone lists, they have call display to filter who they are talking to, and they get annoyed when filling out census data because they don’t think the government needs to know so much about them. All of these empirical situations indicate that people are desperately concerned with their personal privacy, but they are neither aware of the present violations in digital spaces nor how to stem them.

It’s interesting that market proponents are jumping into the fray, using the above empirical facts to attract venture capital and roll out programs to limit the publicity of individuals’ digital profiles. This indicates that the market seems to think that individuals are likely interested in their privacy, and that there is the hope that the will put their money where their principles are. I think (having done no statistical research on the matter, so take it for what you will) that a central reason that citizens have been hesitant to use these services to protect digital privacy has been a distrust of the companies’ abilities to suppress digital information. It’s not an unfounded belief, but a reasonably hesitancy that has limited their willingness to use market means to mitigate privacy invasions – it’s not that consumers (note the shift from citizen–> consumer in the market solution) aren’t willing to pay to protect their right, but that they’re acting as moderately rational economic actors – you don’t buy something if the expected benefits are less than the cost of the product.

As it becomes more and more evident that personal privacy violations are happening each day, I think that the solution will be regulation and legislation, rather than corporate privacy fiats and market-based solutions, but ultimately whether or not we let an easily temporary empirical shift in privacy redefine it’s normative horizons will only be seen in a couple decades, when real etymology can be performed on transitive meaning of ‘privacy’.