Law in the Internet Society
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Lessons from the Fireside: Synthesizing the Journey Thus Far

-- By BrianS - 02 Dec 2009

Something Private this Way Comes

We are now well-acquainted with the exclamation that privacy is dead. In the days of yore, we are told, there was secrecy - and the secrecy was good. But the digital age promised us the greatest conveniences, services customized to our every desire, if we would simply let others know a bit about us. "Like the oleander, however, the beauty is the danger." The stories of the sacrifice of privacy on the altar of technological advancement are now legion. And so, they say, privacy is dead.

The truth of the matter is much darker. The claim that privacy is "dead" or "lost" suggests a sort of invasion of our secret places, shadowed eyes peering into our bedrooms, probing mentalists looking into our thoughts themselves. It also suggests that we now have no concept of privacy in our lives. But neither implication is reality.

To the contrary, we have not stopped understanding what privacy is, nor have we stopped thinking that some things are private. We retain a sense that there are matters that are ours only to tell, our secrets to hold, our nakedness to conceal. Technology does not peer into our innermost sanctum, it is we who spill our darkest secrets to technology. Technology does not read our minds, we instead freely confess what we are thinking, why we are thinking it, and to whom we are telling it to. We do so in real time. Privacy has not been lost, it has been given away; privacy has not died, we have made it into a fully-living monster. This is the Frankensteinian New Privacy, a horror of our own making.

The Monster, Made

The New Privacy is a clever beast with many, silver-tongued maws. The Privacy tells us that no matter what we might think is personal, we must still blog about that party last weekend. The creature boldly professes that it values our secrets, but that it truly must possess them so that it can be a better companion; TWikiGuest, don't you want to be better friends?

In sum, the New Privacy has convinced us to disrobe in public without discarding our fear of nakedness.

Like any good creature of nightmare, we do not fully understand the New Privacy's power; it is difficult to pin down its harms. Because the Privacy operates in shadow and mist, we cannot clearly perceive where it might next strike. But the Privacy is always lurking near; it watches us at home, and as we travel afar. And because we have allowed the beast's tendrils to so embrace our lives, the threat now surrounds us on all sides. In the light of day it beckons us to adhere to its wishes, and even in slumber the monster's dreams have power.

The Privacy is without discrimination, it preys on the young and the old, yielding not even for the departed. Indeed, the creature draws strength from all that we are. From the dressings that we clothe ourselves in to the taverns in which we gather; from the vessels we travel the virtual seas upon to the parchment we use to exchange letters. From each of these, the Privacy strengthens.

The Way Home

But not all of the villagers are without ears to hear; after many whispered tales of the beast's rampage, some have found their torches and blades. They have set out in isolation and with entourage. There is disagreement about how the beast should be met: should we capture and cage it, or should we slay it directly? By what means could it even be caged? But the task is the same: the monster must be stopped. Some have called the hunters fools; others would be glad to travel with them. And so we come to the question of which am I.

Never have I have met the creature face to faces, and the wounds it has dealt me are yet few. But I have listened at the fireside long enough to know that something moves in the darkness. I have seen enough marks in the dirt to know the thing's measure, and to know that it is growing. I am now one who is searching for his pitchfork in the night; I tell you this story because I fear to dwell in darkness alone.

How then, traveler, could we advance when we are only coming to wisdom so far down the path? The answer begins where all nightmares end: we must wake up. The power of the monster is its secrecy, for if it is as terrible as we claim, how long would the villagers let it live if it was dragged into the light of day? Yes, until the monster is revealed, we will fight it alone. "The real power lies in us," and we must act soon.

But the New Privacy is not a creature of myth, and sunlight alone will not dispatch it. Further, some welcome the monster's influence; we must therefore reject murdering the beast, for to do so would be to deny the villagers freedom of choice, and thereby sacrifice part of ourselves.

Still, like anything with potential to do great harm, we must limit the monster's reach. We must require the Privacy's agents to reveal their purposes whenever they seek to deal with us. We must require those disclosures to strike the difficult balance between entirety, brevity, and clarity. We cannot pretend that this balance is easily found. But if we are to both respect the choices of those who would freely deal with the monster and yet wholly accept that those dealings are dangerous to us all, that balance is the only viable option of which I know. And if you insist, fellow traveler, that there are better solutions than I here propose, better ways to escape the thicket that we are now within?

Well, TWikiGuest, then you see why I am so eager to have you along.


Since I am called twice in your essay, please let me say a few here even though it is not yet ready for review.

First, i am impressed with your last part writing about "monster". it answers well my question in my essay ("Question is how" - i deleted that sentence in the revised version before reading your paper). I agree that it is not easy to find the optimal balance between a monopolistic power and competing insurgents.

I sometimes become pessimistic how we can improve the world. However, I believe that this nation, U.S., has power to create something new and to challenge monsters always.

Rather, I am more concerned about those societies which do not have this counter-culture or anti-mainstream mentality.

Thank you, Brian, for carefully reading my paper. Your paper gives me some encouragement.

-- AndoY - 06 Dec 2009

Ando, Brian actually inserted a code % WIKIUSERNAME % (without spaces in between the % and WIKIUSERNAME) so that the reader will see his name. Pretty nifty tool.

-- AllanOng - 06 Dec 2009

That is correct, if you are logged in while reading the paper it will kick up your Wiki Name. If you are not logged in, you'll see TWikiGuest I believe. The idea behind the %WIKIUSERNAME% code is to give the essay an aura of "that's kind of creepy." Which, given the dangers I'm trying to identify in the essay, is just what I'm going for.

So while I did read your paper carefully Ando, I didn't single you out particularly. wink That would be mean!

-- BrianS - 06 Dec 2009

What I am trying to do in this essay is capture our privacy discussion and some of the lessons it presents, but in a different form. I have two areas I'm particularly interested in comments, but please comment on any:

1) is the linking overwhelming, especially the links where the URL does not clearly indicate the destination's content; and

2) do the links you do jump to serve their purposes well?

I also welcome any other comments or suggestions. Oh, and as a note, I debated restricting access for the wiki user name feature to always avoid TWikiGuest. I did not because I decided a gimmick was not worth limiting access.

-- BrianS - 17 Dec 2009


# * Set ALLOWTOPICVIEW = TWikiAdminGroup, BrianS


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r11 - 17 Dec 2009 - 03:06:40 - BrianS
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