Tiffany Jenkins: Society poorer for privacy theft

Using Facebook is one way of fulfilling the need for constant connectivity. Picture: Getty
Using Facebook is one way of fulfilling the need for constant connectivity. Picture: Getty
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Lost in celebrations over the anniversary of the World Wide Web was an important warning from the founder, writes Tiffany Jenkins

THERE is a prescient scene in The Circle, the dystopian novel by David Eggers about the rise of a social media company whose mission it is to make everything visible.

Mae, the central protagonist, works and lives on the hip campus of the company, which is made out of glass, and she cheerfully climbs the ranks, leaving behind childhood friends, parents, and her privacy.

At a crucial moment she is reprimanded for keeping a kayaking trip to herself. Withholding information about the experience: what she saw, and how she felt, is considered a selfish act – the motto of the company is “Privacy is Theft”. Mae learns from her mistake and chooses to live with a camera strapped to herself, broadcasting her every move.

The brave new world of the internet as depicted by Eggers is recognisable because our lives are dominated by it. Don’t get me wrong – I love the web. I can last for about 15 minutes without it, before feeling the need to check my e-mails, news and social networking sites.

My smartphone is always just an arm’s-length reach away and I suffer from withdrawal symptoms on holidays where there is no reception and it’s not possible to log on.

I need it for work, for keeping up with friends. I can stop any time, I tell myself, but I know that’s not quite true. And I know I am not alone in the constant need of connectivity, because when I go online there is always thousands of people to talk to.

It’s remarkable just how much we have embraced the web. Life is unimaginable without it. Yet Facebook is only ten years old; Twitter is eight – young, really. And the internet has only just turned25; it’s only a quarter of a century old.

Every important birthday deserves some kind of celebration and this is what the World Wide Web received this week: an abundance of congratulations.

Cue reminiscing about life online in the early 1990s – it only started in 1989 – and funny tales about noisy modems and slow download speeds.

Cue, also, amusing anecdotes about the hours of procrastination wasted online and the joy of the Grumpy Cat meme.

And cue plenty of technical information about the first web page; the first link; the first blog. Cue just about everything, that is, except serious reflection on what has accompanied the internet as it has grown up.

Missing, on the whole, as the anniversary was marked, was proper reflection on the digital world that we now inhabit.

But there was one questioning and important voice among the gushing birthday wishes; that of the founder of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, who called for an online bill of rights, an online Magna Carta.

His concern is that the open and free nature of the internet is protected, and that an online bill of rights protect privacy and limit government snooping. Berners-Lee said: “Our rights are being infringed more and more on every side, and the danger is that we get used to it. So I want to use the 25th anniversary for us all to do that, to take the web back into our own hands and define the web we want for the next 25 years.”

Tim Berners-Lee has been a consistent critic of the American and British spy agencies’ monitoring of citizens, following the revelations by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (and now rector of the University of Glasgow).

He is right. Now is the time for such a debate. In the last quarter of a century, as the internet has taken hold, a great deal has changed in culture, which has influenced and been influenced by the web.

One of the most important is our concept of privacy, which has dissolved. And taking that back; reinforcing the boundaries between the public and private, will not be easy.

Privacy – “the selfish hoarding of life… all that messiness of humanity” as described negatively by Mae in The Circle – is about being able to control what information about us is communicated to others.

It is a physical and mental space where one can be alone. And it is essential to being a full human being. A private sphere is where we can be ourselves, somewhere where we can say and do the wrong thing, relax, take off our public face, reflect, and experiment. It’s where we can truly be intimate with each other, away from all kinds of prying eyes, before venturing out again into a more public sphere.

It helps to shore up social and psychological depth.

But the private space is being invaded: by the state and corporations, who monitor our every move, read our communications, and follow our digital footprints.

Nothing we do online is private. Sometimes we object, but other times we demand it, because we want protection.

Mae welcomes a life under surveillance, hoping it will expose and prevent the bad things that happen in the darkness: child abduction; murder; the risks that come from other people.

The truth is, rather than a bill of rights, trusting each other a little more would be a good step in reinforcing privacy and one reason why it’s so difficult.

But that’s not all. The problem with privacy today is that it is something that we give away too easily.

Yes, there is monitoring and information trawls that we object to, but we also wilfully violate our own privacy every day. We are complicit. It’s as if the self doesn’t exist unless it is databased; an event hasn’t taken place unless it is instagrammed or “liked”. It’s as if we don’t matter unless we are posting and clicking and telling everyone our business. “Know Thyself” has become “Show Thyself”.

The origination of these problems are longstanding. The internet is not the cause or even the trigger, but it has amplified and made it possible to do everything online and in the open.

Maybe we should aim to celebrate the 26th birthday of the World Wide Web, having spent more of the year offline, stealing back our privacy.