TOC Public privacy. Private publicity Your Turn

As the curtain rises over the sole representation of our new collective drama, titled "2007", it is customary to make a list, new year resolutions for individuals, new year predictions for commentators. Providence interacting with human nature is wont to turn both lists into an exercice of wishful thinking. Safer is to ask a question or two. Long after critics have ridiculed their gallant attempts at providing answers, philosophers rest their fame on having been first to frame a good question.

So on the first day of 2007, let me ask my readers, be they fair or unfair, where on Internet is the border between the public and private spheres.

In real life, there is no doubt such a border exists and its importance can hardly be overemphasized as many laws make implicit or explicit reference to it. Take for instance Francesco Guerrera's report on Chapman Capital's recent initiative (*). Inspired by the time-honored practice of political operatives digging dirt and slinging mud, this hedge fund seeks to hire a private investigator to "track movements of public company executives". Vocabulary may provide the spice of irony. What is capital however is Francesco Guerrera's observation that "most US states [allow] personal surveillance as long as it takes place from public property". How much of a public venue does Internet provide to feed Chapman's brownmail?

If Internet is the ultimate agora (see 11/21/06 fillip), the activities of any individual should be thought as happening in public. When Internet is viewed as the ultimate pneumatic network, any activity takes place in a private exchange between two consenting parties to the exclusion of all others. Fixing the border is a way to define Internet as it is in practice.

So soon after late night merry making, some readers will perhaps draw a yawn or, in a more poetic mood, sketch angels dancing on a pin. But who is ready to dismiss racial discrimination as a silly topic? How deeply this phenomenon is rooted in our society can be seen in Jodi Kantor's analysis of the difficulties black middle-class families encounter when they try to hire a nanny (**). On average potential candidates display some reluctance to work for such families, whose offers are perceived as less attractive. From our highly focused perspective, this illustrates where the border lies between the public and the private spheres.

Racial discrimination in hiring is prosecutable under the law. As his or her behavior can be reported if inappropriate, a prospective employer is seen to act in a public capacity. Prospective employees however do not have to justify their decisions to accept or not a job offer and can safely discriminate against would-be employers. They are deemed to act in a private capacity. Such distinctions become glaringly explicit on the Internet, given the power and efficiency of its search and match technologies. Nothing would be more hypocritical than to impose on Internet constraints to hide this border as an inconvenient truth.

Even more insidious is the unlimited capacity of Internet services to archive interactions, as it raises the risk of releasing private behaviors into the public record. Porous fences make bad neighbors. One hardly need to mention so-called privacy policies. Ornamental at their best, dissembling at their worst, they highlight the problem rather than provide a solution.

Internet puts pressure to out privacy in public. This is about individual freedom and the social contract, a matter of morality or ethics, as one says when highly paid lawyers replace a well trained conscience. Better known is the converse, a matter of commerce, as to where the border lies between consumer rights and corporate interests. Here modern technology allows the invasion of privacy by publicity.

Public advertising has been around since the first towns allowed merchants to hawk their goods on markets and peddlers their services in the streets. Nowadays billboards enliven our cities and even become cherished landmarks like the Citgo neon sign which graces the Boston sky at night over the Charles River (1). Mass media has extended this public sphere by broadcasting an endless stream of information and entertainment to all who care pick up the signal, paid for by advertisers.

Border issues arise because modern technology allows advertisers to hijack private communications. I have already railed against Google's practice of reading the correspondence of its Gmail users (see 12/12/06 fillip). At least those who dislike their spam to be served with carrier approved adverts can switch to other providers for more private mail services. It will not be so easy to escape from the clutches of Verizon Wireless. According to Matt Richtel's report (***), it plans to display publicities on the screen of its mobile phones. Isn't it heart-warming to read Mr John Harrobin, Vice-President at Verizon, has been experimenting on how far to go before consumers rebel? This pragmatic approach to border setting reminds me of how some doctors monitor torture subjects to make sure they survive.

In such capable hands, privacy will be defined as what remains once the public sphere has reached the maximum extent that we can bear. Mr Chapman must be beaming. May I suggest he buys some Verizon Wireless stock.

Happy New Year.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ....Mean streets come to Wall St as hedge fund seeks gumshoe, by Francesco Guerrera (Financial Times) - December 24, 2006
  • (**).. Nanny Hunt Can Be a 'Slap in the Face' for Blacks, by Jodi Kantor (New York Times) - December 26, 2006
  • (***) Verizon to Allow Ads On Its Mobile Phones, by Matt Richtel (New York Times) - December 26, 2006
  • (1) see Citgo fever by Margaret Weigel - July 2002
January 2007
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