Privacy as the Default Setting

Before I can write a blog post, I must lift my hands to type.

I say so because the default setting in life is privacy. Staying in bed maintains privacy pretty well.

Clay Shirky gives privacy a contrary treatment on the New York TimesRoom for Debate blog. We are both discussants there of the question whether the government should intervene to solve privacy issues with Facebook.

Shirky, a teacher in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at N.Y.U., writes:

There are two principal effects of the Internet on privacy. The first is to shrink personal expression to a dichotomy: public or private. Prior to the rise of digital social life, much of what we said and did was in a public environment — on the street, in a park, at a party — but was not actually public, in the sense of being widely broadcast or persistently available.

This enormous swath of personal life, as we used to call it, existed on a spectrum between public and private, and the sheer inconvenience of collecting and collating theoretically observable but practically unobserved actions was enough to keep those actions out of the public sphere.

That spectrum has now collapsed — data is either public or private, and the idea of personal utterances being observable but unobserved is becoming as quaint as an ice cream social.

“[I]t is keeping things private that requires effort,” he writes.

I think Shirky has inadvertently overstated the effects of the Internet on privacy. The dynamics he describes are definitely in play, but they exist almost exclusively in digital social life. For the rest of life, it’s still the other way around. Privacy is easy. You can just stay in bed. Pursuing publicity takes effort.

When you go out into the world, making effort to give publicity to yourself in pursuit of your wants and needs, you must trade some personal information for interaction, yes. That’s physics: photons and sound waves doing what they do. Nobody considers this a privacy problem because of our long experience with it and acculturation to it.

The online environment has similar information demands—when you go online, giving publicity to yourself in pursuit of your wants and needs, you must trade some personal information for interaction—but it has different properties: information is easier to record. Again, though, the rise of the Internet didn’t change privacy on the street, in parks, and at parties, except in the still rare instance when someone is recording and uploading information.

If we were to conduct all of life online, maybe it would be fair to say that protecting privacy takes effort. But even as a digital denizen, the majority of my experience—certainly the most important and valuable of it—is offline, face-to-face interactions with friends and loved ones or time alone.

Here, privacy is the default. Nobody knows my thoughts unless I tell them. Almost never is anyone capturing the conversation in a digital format. Rarely is anyone uploading images. Facebook isn’t hoovering up the information. Doing these things would take effort that nobody is expending.

The Internet didn’t foreclose the use of real space for the conduct of life as Shirky implies by talking about offline living in the past tense. It expanded our freedom by giving us another space—a new option to use as we see fit. Declining to use that space is as normal, natural, and necessary as eating breakfast (which is impossible to do online, by the way). Maybe some of the digerati conduct their love-lives online, but this should be a disqualification for discussing the social impact of the medium for failure to understand how it fits into most people’s lives.

Privacy debates premised on the omnipresence of digital media are interesting and fun, but I don’t think they’re grounded in people’s actual experience of the world (exception!), and they tend to overstate the significance of online privacy problems.