Growing up in the Unites States, one gets accustomed to a greater degree of isolation than you could hope for in India. The details of your personal life—who your friends are, what your travel plans are, how much money you make and spend—are generally verboten topics of conversation. Only the most gauche, or perhaps congenitally overbearing relative would think of mentioning these topics in polite company.
It is with a strange sense of cultural whiplash, then, that I have been reading about Internet companies and Internet CEOs with very unusual ideas about what personal information the users of their services should consider making public. Google head honcho Eric Schmidt told CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” And in an interview with Michael Arrington of Techcrunch, the popular blog on Internet startups, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, all but pronounced the notion of privacy dead. All of 25 years old, Zuckerberg would have us believe that his view of how people should make their private desires, life plans and connections public is in fact the future we should all expect to live in. All of a sudden, people like Zuckerberg and Schmidt have become modern, hi-tech versions of my grandmother.
My thoughts were drawn in this direction when I read about Indian American entrepreneur Ashvin Kumar’s social networking company, (http://www.blippy.com.) Blippy’s tag line is, “What are your friends buying?” and Kumar’s idea is simple: if your friend got a real deal on the latest appliance or phone data plan, shouldn’t you be the first to know? For those of us steeped in the how-cheap-is-my-bag-of-rice culture, this sounds nothing short of a heaven-sent blessing. I wish I could turn my smartphone on, and have it announce where Nalini didi picked up a pack of diapers for a killer wholesale deal, and where that chalu Vishal mama managed to get all three of his kids’ haircuts for less than it costs to fill a tank of gas.
It’s easy to forget that releasing intimate details of our lives to the Web is not as simple as dealing with nosy in-laws during Christmas vacation. What auntie and uncle know about you, they will (largely) keep to themselves or perhaps only tease you when you first introduce them to your spouse. The dirt you have on your brother is usually balanced by the secrets he’s kept for you. However, interacting with technologies on the Web creates very different relationships of relative trust and transparency. The Web magnifies and perpetuates asymmetries of information very rapidly, and this leads to an asymmetry of political and economic power between the technology haves and have-nots.
Government intrusion into personal privacy has been a hot-button issue in the United States, particularly after post-9/11 revelations of unsanctioned wiretaps by federal authorities. While such disclosures have prompted some outrage, the mood of the age makes it easy to go along with Schmidt’s prescription: are people who want to protect their information criminals who want to operate in the shadows? In our quest for individual liberties, are we inadvertantly aiding and abetting terrorists?
There is also the prevailing culture of exhibitionism, which Internet companies have been quick to exploit. They do not educate their users adequately, partly because there’s money to be made in encouraging individuals to reveal details about their activities, and partly because everyone is in a hurry to build the latest, coolest idea and gadget to pay attention to the privacy implications of their services.
Marketers, advertisers, and others engaged in trying to sell us their products pay a great deal of money to divine our motivations and interests in order to pander to them. Did you know how much you were craving that HD plasma TV? Well, you did not, but the data analysts at eBay certainly did. That’s why they showed more ads for expensive electronics to you than to someone else. You have little time to extensively research all your options, so the first attractive product you see is the one you will eventually purchase. Companies are only too happy to exploit your being overwhelmed with choice, without considering if you, the proper owner of information about yourself, should be compensated for parting with it.
Social networking adds another layer of venality to this practice of stealing personalities—the Web effortlessly envelopes your entire network of friends! Google and Facebook have been at the forefront of these innovations, though they are by no means the only organizations that are hungry for your social connections. Facebook’s aggressive attitudes to making personal information “indexable” have hollowed out its claims that it is concerned about its users’ privacy. Amazon dictates access to its catalog and defines how it utilizes your reading history in ways that are impossible to understand and control.
There is another, oft-overlooked concern when it comes to loss of privacy. Hacker societies all around the world, operating in legitimate, criminal and shadowy in-between realms have developed many technologies designed explicitly to obfuscate identities. In countries like China and India, there is access to advanced technical skills but fewer regulations around Internet security than in the United States or Europe. By their sheer numbers, operators in these societies can radically redefine the ways in which we understand the nature of our identity. When we add all this to the tremendous amount of data held by private entities in the United States, we can easily envision a future where our identities are controlled by many entities other than ourselves.
Indian culture draws very different lines between what is public and what is private. This influence in my life makes me both tremendously positive as well as wary of some of these directions in which Internet technology is taking us. My childhood memories of India are full of experiences of daily activities—from getting phone connections to buying land—that turned into Sisyphean struggles because of the opaque nature of Indian bureaucracy, politics, and the “License Raj.”
Kumar, the CEO of Blippy, in an interview with The Hindu, also makes an interesting point about privacy—in the public sphere, “transparency breeds accountability.” We all appreciate the value of requiring our governments and publicly traded companies to be transparent. “Sunshine laws” in various countries provide legal support for the right of citizens to know how the details behind the actions their governments undertake.
But the same rules don’t apply when it comes to the flow of information from individuals to corporate entities. Few of the top decision makers at any large corporation would consider it reasonable for the public to snoop into their lives—who they are dating, where they live, and what thoughts go into the choices they make. Why then should they be allowed to plunder the treasure of information we keep about our social activities?
The claim that we have to live with a certain amount of lost privacy in order to get free online services is also overstated. Companies can gather information about consumers indirectly without needing to keep track of individual behaviors and interactions. We can dictate that our technologies be built in different ways. Highly successful businesses like Craigslist, for example, hold the principles of privacy and anonymity much closer to their heart than larger companies do.
For many decades now, the Supreme Court has recognized the right to privacy and the importance of anonymizing certain kinds of public records, especially related to a citizen’s consumption of media and products. In Europe, laws restricting companies from sharing information about transactions are already much stricter than in the United States. Similar laws, addressing the “free-for-all” reality we have constructed in the last decade, need to be formulated and enacted here.
Citizens have already organized to avoid the nightmare of junk mail and dinner time telemarketing calls that were considered a necessary evil for far too long. We can continue these efforts against the more insidious efforts of Internet service companies to pickpocket the particulars of our personal lives to which they have no right.
We have, of course, become willing participants in the dissemination of information about ourselves through social media sites like Facebook, MySpace, Blippy, or videos uploaded to YouTube, but we can demand walls that prevent the free sharing of information between corporate entities.
It is for us to engage in these discussions to redefine what privacy means to us, whether it is worth preserving, and to what lengths we are willing to go to protect it.
Or we could just give it all up for our 15 minutes worth of fame.
The author is a software consultant in the United States.