Felix Stalder on Tue, 11 May 1999 00:07:43 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The End of Privacy

The End of Privacy as Triumph of Neoliberalism

Recently (May 1st, 1999), the Economist ran on its front cover a story on
The End of Privacy. The article seemed to state the obvious: as more and
more of our communication is electronically mediated, more and more of our
communication leaves trails, recorded by someone, somewhere. Privacy, it is
said, is a residual value which has eroded over the last decade and will
continue to erode over the next. The reason for its disappearance is not
Big Brother, the evil, centralized authority, but the consumer's
willingness to give a away, bit by bit, more and more private information
in exchange for this or that benefit. The cumulative, unintended
consequence is to render privacy impossible. Under these circumstances,
privacy advocates fight a noble and righteous battle, and even though we
all wish they would win, they are doomed to loose not just the battle but
the war. This is as much inevitable as the progress of technology itself.
Acknowledging that is nothing but acknowledging the obvious, nothing but a
pragmatic and realistic view on reality, so is the gospel according to the

But of course, the more things seem to be natural, the more they are
political and in this case, the politics are pressing. In October 1998, the
EU Data Protection directive came into force, which aims at giving
individuals unprecedented ownership and control over their personal
information. The really tricky part states that no data can be exported
into countries which do not have similarly strong privacy protection: most
notably, North America. While Canada is scrambling to put new legislation
in place to meet European standards (Bill C 54), the US are gearing up for
a trade war. And the End of Privacy argument is part of this war. The issue
that is being fought over is simple: is there anything that is allowed to
slow down the development of business, is there any price too high to be
paid for its expansion? The neoliberal answer is: no! Expansion and growth
are ultimate values in themselves. While such an argument is usually coated
with free market optimism, in the case of privacy protection, even the
staunchest proponent must admit that the market "has failed abysmally".
Privacy protection is impossible under market rule and only way not to
acknowledge this is to claim that privacy is doomed anyway, no matter what
we do. Fighting against the inevitable trend, the argument goes, is like
Don Quixote running up against the wind mills, noble but delusional.

The article is an example, as good as any, of what Ignacio Ramonet calls
"pensee unique", the One-Idea-System of neo-liberalism, which masks the
most ideological claims as 'natural', 'realistic' or 'pragmatic' [1]. In
this case, ubiquitous creation of sensitive personal data and access to
them by anyone able to pay for it. What is natural about that? Nothing!
While it is indeed difficult to control digital information once it has
been created or gathered, it is possible to prevent data from being
created. The introduction of the Pentium III chip (with sports a unique ID
number that can be retrieved over the Net) has nothing to do with the
unstoppable "tidal wave" of technological progress, but everything with the
transformation of the Internet from an environment built for information
sharing to one optimized for information selling.  While it suits
e-commerce interests, such a chip would be impossible, not inevitable, with
the proper privacy rights in place. Similarly, unconditionally untraceable
e-cash is possible but there is no commercial interest in implementing it
as long as privacy infringements are legal and profitable. Data trails, as
anything online, are constructed, and their paths are indicative of the
culture and interests of those constructing them.

The privacy fights often seem like stale old debates about opting in or
opting out. However, the opposite is the case. It's precisely because this
issue is so old and so often rehashed that it's easily understood and can
mobilize significant resistance. In a way, "the right to be left alone" is
the only globally shared civil value.  It's the only issue through which
more complex civil values such as accountability, control and
self-determination can be brought into mainstream discourse. Abandoning
privacy, thus, is the ultimate surrender to unfettered rule of business
interests. Which is, of course, what the Economist would like to happen.

[1] Ramonet, Igancio (1998). Geopolitics of Chaos: Internationalization,
Cyberculture & Political Chaos (translated by Andrea Lyn Sacara). New York:
Algora Publishing
For a review, see http://www.fis.utoronto.ca/~stalder/html/ramonet.html


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