Ana Viseu on Mon, 26 Nov 2001 23:42:19 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> privacy and freedom of choice

Privacy and freedom of choice

The general discourse over technology usage is one of freedom of choice. 
You chose to adopt or not to adopt a technology, to use or not to use it. 
This argument allows for only two explanations: One, you choose not to use 
it because you don’t like/want it (e.g., it poses too many risks, takes too 
much time, etc); or, second, you choose to use it because you like/want it 
(i.e., you think it is helpful, saves time, etc). In both cases it is 
assumed that the individual is making a clear and aware choice about the 
usage and characteristics of a technology.

Within the context of the privacy discussion the ‘freedom of choice 
discourse’ translates into arguments of the style, "You don’t have to give 
information. No-one's forcing you to use the Internet” [1], into 
‘opt-in/opt-out’ policies and into views of privacy as a commodity to be 
bought and sold.

This ‘freedom of choice’ discourse is deceiving. It assumes at least three 
things that cannot be taken for granted. First that one is indeed free to 
choose; second, that one is aware of the dangers; and third, that the 
context in which one chooses will remain stable over time.

Is there real freedom of choice for users? In the early adoption phase of a 
technology it can be said that most of its users do, in fact, use it 
voluntarily. For example, the early internet enthusiasts or email adopters. 
However, the same cannot be said when a technology has penetrated society’s 
imagination/perception (I believe this penetration does not necessarily 
have to be ‘real’. See for example, the greed and need of all corporations 
to have an e-commerce when still almost no one is making money of the web; 
or the inflated stock values of companies without a business plan…). 
Nowadays, for many the choice of not using the Internet, for example, is 
fairly limited or non-existent. Even in school children are being “asked” 
to do their homework using the Internet and to post their work online. 
Anecdotal evidence comes from the story of a Dutch 64-year-old politician 
who quit his job because he was unable to cope with the pressure of the 
amount of email he received each day [2].

The longer the more, you are not given the freedom to choose whether to 
use, or not, a certain technology: Can you tell your boss that you no 
longer want to use email because you don’t want to be monitored? Or your 
teacher that you don’t want to type your paper because you prefer to write 
by hand? No. Not really. Making such choices would have disproportionally 
negative consequences.

Is there freedom of choice if you don’t know the ramifications of the 
options? Even if people were always free to choose, choice presupposes 
awareness. For, how can I choose if I don’t know what I am choosing from? 
The privacy dangers of using certain technologies or performing certain 
activities -- calling a medical help line, for example -- are not always 
clear. For many of those who are not technology literate, privacy threats 
are but a hot topic on the press. (I think this explains why many surveys 
put privacy as a top concern on peoples’ minds but in practice most people 
don’t have any clear strategy to protect their privacy).

Given the current trends of making computing invisible, of making 
“transparent” interfacesfor example, ubiquitous and/or embedded 
computingknowing who/what is behind certain activities is increasingly 
hard. As the visibility of the technologies decreases, so does awareness 
and accountability.

How free is choice if the conditions can change after you have chosen? The 
sociotechnical environment created by the Internet and other networked 
technologies is not static. In fact it is so dynamic that most people would 
agree that we live in a “revolutionary” age. Both the technology and the 
user change with the time and usage and so do the potential threats. What 
five years ago was considered common practice, e.g., giving your real name 
when posting on Usenet, may now turn against you. The expectation that the 
conditions under which one made a decision will not change is not a 
rational one.

The expectation that the “usage” of the data that is being collected will 
also not change is even more irrational. The previous Usenet example also 
applies here, for now, with new technologies that archive any and all 
messages posted the medium is altogether different. But this is not an 
Internet-only issue. For example, an American ice-cream business sold its 
name-list of consumers claiming free sundaes on their birthdays to a 
marketing firm. The marketing firm then sold it to the Department of 
Defence. Soon afterwards all male ice-cream eaters started receiving draft 
registration warnings on the mail for their birthday [3].

The outcome of discussing privacy in terms of personal choice is that it 
results in the commodification of privacy itself. It encourages the belief 
that everyone “owns” his or her right to privacy. It is a given, your 
given, and you can sell it to others at your own convenience. So, it is 
argued, can choose to allow my insurance company to “talk” (i.e., have 
access to data from) my kitchen. In this way, I can be rewarded for having 
a salad instead of a cigarette; Or, if I drive safely I may want to allow 
my insurance company access to my car in order to lower my insurance price [4].

You don’t have to go into the complicated new technologies that allows 
access to information that was previously unknown (such as genetics) to see 
how this is potentially dangerous. There is a fine line between voluntary 
and compulsory, between freedom of choice and no freedom at all is a very 
thin one. A look at the current use of invasive job-interviews, where 
employees-to-be are subjected to a barrage of personal psychological tests 
and intimate questions. Nobody is forced to release the information, it is 
voluntary. However it is also unavoidable and vital for a full insertion in 
the job market, and thus, in society at large.

All this indicates that a privacy discussion framed along the lines of 
freedom of choice is missing the point (and problem) that freedom is often 
imaginary or ephemeral. What is needed is a new model for designing privacy 
into technology. Rather than being designed assuming that individuals will 
have the freedom of choice to use or avoid them, technologies should be 
designed with the a priori knowledge that if they are to be successful the 
individual will have little choice [5].

For privacy advocates this implies shifting from a model based on “choice” 
(e.g., the fight for opt-in vs. opt-out policies) to one that is more 
grounded and emphasizes the connection between offline and online 
practices. It is necessary to re-evaluate the privacy discourse in terms of 
the real needs (and practices) of those using the technologies. What is 
needed are not more options, but new default configurations that account 
for the constraints under which people have to make decisions.


[2] <>

[3] Lyon, David. (1994). The electronic eye: The rise of surveillance 
society. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. p.10

[4] Example taken from Gershenfeld, Neil. (1999). When things start to 
think. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

[5] McLuhan once said, albeit in a different context, that “the more 
freedom there is in the machine, the less freedom there is in the person”.

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