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Privacy has been a hot topic in the last few years, due largely to the confluence of digital media that travels easily with social platforms that encourage inputting all the information about one’s life. But the term gets thrown around and used to mean keeping all kinds of things private from all kinds of people.

I read something recently that made an offhand remark about privacy and privatization while citing Amitai Etzioni‘s 1999 book The Limits of Privacy (I don’t know what I was reading and I really did go looking but I can’t find it again; however, I’m fairly certain it was either Saskia Sassen or Nick Dyer-Witheford, based on when it was in the semester, and the latter seems the more likely suspect).

That reading, whatever it was, sparked me to think about the relationship between privacy and privatization, public and publicity, and what we talk about when we talk about privacy. (Lapsed English major FTW with the Raymond Carver reference!)

It seems that people are most concerned with interpersonal privacy. They don’t want their mom to know they got totally wasted last weekend, their employer to know they lied to go to a party,  or potential stalkers nearby to know their location.

(Own work Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons”

They are, to a lesser degree, concerned with privacy from the government. Post-9/11 surveillance in the name of counterterrorism has gotten some pushback—certainly, wants me to petition Facebook not to give its members’ information to the governmentwithout a warrant, which both seems important and like a drop in the proverbial bucket o’ surveillance—but the sheer trauma of that event was sufficient to convince at least some people of what Etzioni contended in 1999 that Americans generally steadfastly refused to accept, that public goods (like safety and health) sometimes require violating privacy (p. 2).

However, there is markedly less concern about privacy when it comes to corporations. As Etzioni put it, “although our civic culture, public policies, and legal doctrines are attentive to privacy when it is violated by the state, when privacy is threatened by the private sector our culture, policies, and doctrines provide a surprisingly weak defense” (p. 10).

There are exceptions, of course, as shown by discomfort with the fact that Target can figure out women are pregnant based on their purchases and will send them coupons for pregnancy and baby items, often before they’ve told anyone in their immediate families.  By and large, though, protecting privacy from corporations doesn’t generate a lot of attention among the general public.

Likely this is at least somewhat because most people are not aware of how Facebook or Google or any of the other big Internet companies works. They get, to use Dallas Smythe‘s famous terminology, a free lunch, and they think that’s in exchange for the advertisements they can freely ignore, so it seems like a good deal.

However, what the company really gets from them is not their attention, but the traces of their life—demographics, location, social relationships, likes, hobbies, what they click on, what other websites they visit, etc. etc. etc—left behind every time they do anything, much like footprints, fingerprints, or dead skin cells in the physical world.

(For a detailed critique of Google’s use of data, which forms some of my background knowledge here, see Christian Fuchs’ Google’s “New“ Terms of Use and Privacy Policy: Old Exploitation and User Commodification in a New Ideological Skin)

However, I suspect that even if people did know how it worked, protecting privacy from corporations still wouldn’t get very many people’s dander up, for two reasons:

  1. Privacy is imagined in relation to publicity, such that as long as the information is impersonal, aggregate, and not released to the public, it seems compatible with privacy; and
  2. The strong pro-privatization ethos in much of U.S. public discourse has tended to operate with the assumption that the private sector is in some sense controlled by the public through competition and people voting with their dollars.


Etzioni described this as “the privacy paradox: Although they fear Big Brother most, they need to lean on him to protect privacy better from Big Bucks” (p. 10), but I think that’s no longer true (and indeed I’m skeptical that it ever was). That is, though multinational capital is capable of overpowering any other force on the planet, with the possible exceptions of the U.S., E.U., and Chinese governments should they suddenly decide to stand up to it, there’s a persistent and mistaken belief that “the market” can keep it in check and thereby keep customers in the driver’s seat as companies compete for their dollars.

The real paradox, then, is that ultimate belief in consumer sovereignty leads consumers to quite freely give up sovereignty over their own data. Or that, we don’t want our data to be publicized, and we don’t want the public sector to intervene, but, as Safiya Noble points out,  these Web technologies are themselves framed as a “public good,” which constrains how (and how much) they can be critiqued.

To say: “Obviously it’s good! It gives people access to information and social connection! For free! Well yeah, maybe it also takes, but it’s worth it! And my information is still private!” takes some pretty complex mental gymnastics and willful ignorances, and the fact that those contortions have become unremarkable is actually quite remarkable.

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