Colin Bennett, in his recent text The Privacy Advocates: Resisting the Spread of Surveillance, does a nice job creating a developing a typography for privacy advocates. Of a minor controversy, his text doesn’t include data protection commissioners as ‘privacy advocates’, even if they self-identify as such, on the basis that he wants to reflect on the roles that actors from civil society now play. Privacy, when understood in terms of regulatory capacity and relevant actors, cannot be sensibly talked about just in terms of ‘official’ advocates (e.g. data commissioners) because civil society is often deeply involved in the actions, reactions, and positions that the commissioners are forced to assume. In essence, privacy advocates are sometimes friends of, foes of, or ambivalent towards the privacy commissioners (I’d use another typography for this relationship, but I’ll wait for it to be publicly presented before talking about it here. It’s really snazzy though.).
Privacy advocates, in Bennett’s terms, are classified as such:
I think about peer to peer (P2P) filesharing on a reasonably regular basis, for a variety of reasons (digital surveillance, copyright analysis and infringement, legal cases, value in efficiently mobilizing data, etc.). Something that always nags at me is the defense that P2P websites offer when they are sued by groups like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The defense goes something like this:
“We, the torrent website, are just an search engine. We don’t actually host the infringing files, we are just responsible for directing people to them. We’re no more guilty of copyright infringement than Google, Yahoo!, or Microsoft are.”
Let’s set aside the fact that Google has been sued for infringing on copyright on the basis that it scrapes information from other websites, and instead turn our attention to the difference between what are termed ‘public’ and ‘private’ trackers. ‘Public’ trackers are available to anyone with a web connection and a torrent program. These sites do not require users to upload a certain amount of data to access the website – they are public, insofar as there are few/no requirements placed on users to access the torrent search engine and associated index. Registration is rarely required. Good examples at thepiratebay.org, and mininova.org. ‘Private’ trackers require users to sign up and log into the website before they can access the search engine and associated index of .torrent files. Moreover, private trackers usually require users to maintain a particular sharing ration – they must upload a certain amount of data that equals or exceeds the amount of data that they download. Failure to maintain the correct share ratio results in users being kicked off the site – they can no longer log into it and access the engine and index.
Ask yourself a question: Why does having private space matter to you? When it comes right down to it, why is it important to maintain the public-private distinction?
Some might immediately assert that the distinction establishes a space where government interests cannot easily intrude, and that the private domain is where individuals develop themselves while hidden from the nation-state’s coercive gaze. When we can speak privately and associate off-the-record we can more easily develop friendships that we might have otherwise shied away from. Moreover, without this private space individuals might not be comfortable talking to one another about radical political, ethical, or cultural issues – if the state could be recording our discussions, then we would have to evaluate whether or not we really wanted to discuss topics such as the value of overthrowing the present government, the importance of weakening the authorities’ scopes of legitimate action, or the value of weakening national rhetoric in favour of plurality.
While there have been clashes about where the division between public and private should be, those clashes often relate to where a line should be drawn rather than about abolishing the line entirely. Some, of course, insist that the public and private are mere phantasms, and that they only exist because we perpetuate a myths of their existence, but for this position to gain traction it must grapple with the necessary co-originality of public and private that is revealed in an examination of the nation-state’s founding. Feminists (accurately) focus on the harms that the strict division between public and private have caused, such as the suppression of women’s issues and the criminal discrimination against women and their labours, but this demonstrates that there is a porous boundary between public and private that must be examined rather than asserting that it absolutely does not exist.