Private Lessons

By Gregor Claude, 10 December 2001

Gregor Claude reports on the Don’t Blow IT conference, held at Bloomberg’s London HQ, where debate centred on the difference between autistic and autonomous models of privacy

Walking into the Bloomberg building in London you are bombarded with a cacophony of sound and image. It appears to be the entire Bloomberg media output, proudly displayed live and all at once. Having invested enormous resources to gather, process and extract information from the noise of the world, they seek to impress the visitor by throwing it all back together, returning it to noise. While still reeling from this spectacular information sacrifice, they frisk you.

It could have been an example from Charles Leadbeater’s talk on our new digital dystopia. Leadbeater, author of Living on Thin Air: The New Economy and sometime courtier at the roundtable of King Tony (Blair), departed from his usual theme of the knowledge economy to focus on the end of our digital utopia. Internet dreams became information overload and fear of surveillance; digital enthusiasm soured with the experience of coercive technologies that seem to use us more than we use them. After Phil Mullan’s excellent take on the Internet economy (available at ), privacy emerged as the key issue of the conference. Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy once said, ‘You already have zero privacy. Get over it’. Simon Davies (Privacy International) and Caspar Bowden (Foundation for Information Policy Research) gave us more than a few good reasons not to get over it just yet, taking us through the erosion of privacy from the RIP Act to the recent post-9/11 proposals. In their accounts the loss of privacy is political, not technologically inevitable, and there is everything to fight for. The real debate began with conference director Norman Lewis insisting on a distinction between two kinds of privacy, one relating to consumer rights and another to civil liberties. For Lewis, we need to distinguish between the private/corporate collection and use of data, and state/law enforcement monitoring and surveillance. The overwhelming concern with corporate data protection casts people as individual consumers who want nothing more than to be left alone; in this role our greatest worry is being molested by overzealous marketeers. Instead, Lewis wants to cast us as political actors able to shrug off the unwanted attention of salesmen, but alert to the increase in State surveillance and control performed through networked technologies.

John Fitzpatrick helped clarify the issue by drawing out the relationship between privacy and freedom. Privacy can be the freedom to experiment unwatched – a crucial element in the development of any kind of idea or expression. But privacy can also be unfreedom, which privatises and promotes a suspicious retreat from the world. The difference is between autonomy and autism. One speaker from the floor cast the privacy of consumer-oriented data protection laws as ‘panopticon privacy’, calling on the state to regulate and supervise the corporate use of personal information. Nevertheless Simon Davies argued against the consumer rights/civil liberties distinction; for him, there are overlaps and grey areas. If anything the private collection and use of data is worse because its use is unaccountable and impossible to control. Worryingly, as a market for private information develops there is an inevitable information leakage that needs to be controlled.Through the debate it emerged that the distinction between consumer rights and civil rights is a tricky but important one. Some corporations and other non-public bodies like NGO’s or quangos take on state functions: the state itself is permeable. But this conceptual distinction helps to explain how, for example, the same government can pass both the draconian RIP Act and the Data Protection Act. Untangling concepts like privacy, freedom and autonomy is essential if today’s emerging information politics wants to exert any political influence.

Don’t Blow IT, London Sept 27 2001, Bloomberg auditorium, LondonDon’t Blow IT was organised by Spiked [ ]

Gregor Claude <gregor AT> is doing a PhD on the Internet and copyright at Goldsmiths College, London