An op-ed in today’s New York Times entitled “Let’s Stop Fetishizing Privacy” was a lovingly blind paean to the glories of unrestricted and unrepentant technology.
The last paragraph read like a challenge to those who might disagree with the author:
“Progress is a messy business. Instead of trying to preserve what was, let’s realistically debate the world we want. Privacy is a relatively modern idea, born of human progress. It should continue to evolve as we continue to progress.”
OK, game on.
First off, let’s skip the sweeping generalizations and invented strawmen:
Privacy advocates aren’t Luddites who don’t believe in progress, or hope to undermine competition.
Consumers don’t have much control over the business practices of tech firms; in fact, we’ve reached a point at which we can’t function without them, irrespective of our opinions.
Government involvement isn’t inherently evil or wrong (after all, it gave us ARPANET), and the opacity of digital business practices has kept them in the dark, along with most of the rest of us.
Now to the author’s specific arguments:
Regulating tech companies could create problems worse then the hoped-for solutions. Unintended consequences are an issue, for sure, and we only have to look at what no regulation of digital businesses has made possible or worse: social discord, bullying and personality disorders, an even greater fetishizing of children as consumers, and all of the crime that is exclusively online. Do we really have to endure these awful problems, not to mention all of the long-term effects we can’t yet imagine, because trying to ameliorate them could be worse?
Regulating tech companies could damage the world’s economy. The author cites employment in the tech sector, but really bases this argument on all those gig economy workers who depend on the free flow of data as the drivers of economic growth. Only that growth comes with immense side-effects (see point above), not to mention the fact that the vast majority of the revenue stemming from that free flow of data goes to the owners of capital, not to workers (most Uber and Lyft drivers make under $4/hour, for instance). So the author is right on this point, however unintentionally: Since tech companies are certainly remaking the world’s economy, we should debate if it’s the world we want.
Innovation will suffer. Yeah, right. Pretty much anything that gets done digitally was invented in the analog world, and in every instance those innovations were regulated. Roads and buildings get built even though there are regulations to keep them safe. Disclosure regulations doesn’t stop companies from raising money or going public, and accounting rules don’t stop people from inventing or operating successful businesses. Transparency on ingredients don’t keep food makers from inventing products. makes publishing more credible, not less. The idea that regulations impede innovation is a canard.
Large tech companies may be our best line of defense against bad actors.This is actually a valid point, insomuch that they created the opportunities for those bad actors in the first place. I agree that digital business should shoulder a far greater amount of the burden and cost of keeping people safe, not just protecting their own interests in the data they’ve acquired. But I don’t think that’s what the author meant…
Lack of data networks will make it harder for Europe to compete on AI, et al. This is a hard argument to follow, but I think the author believes that requirements for user consent unduly hamper companies from getting the data they need, and then using it to operate in real-time. The US and Chinese dominance in AI and all things Internet-related is offered as proof, but maybe Europeans don’t want to live in a surveillance state? Sounds like another good opportunity for that realistic debate the author proposes.
It is time to stop glorifying anonymity, because the dark web is anonymous and therefore more threatening that the web on which we chat and buy shoes, and young people kinda don’t care about privacy anyway. This is typical tech propaganda on so many levels: the state of things is inevitable so why try to change it, we should take at face value the opinions of people who’ve been misinformed or lied to, and the big tech firms are simply agnostic to any issues of good or bad, or right or wrong (tech doesn’t cause problems, people do).
Humanity’s journey through history can be seen as an evolution toward more anonymity, not less, as people have fled the chance identifiers of ethnicity, class, and social roles to try to live as individuals according to their own agency. The same goes for being able to rise above mistakes, or even simple definitions declared by those personal choices, which the author argues society has a vested interest in knowing (therefore deriding the idea of “the right to be forgotten”).
Forget mistakes: How about the right to rise above, or apart from the collective record of every purchase, decision, or physical movement? Are we really better off chained to an endless series of data points, both positive and negative, that yield both wondrous insights about our health while enabling businesses and governments to manipulate us?
Now that’s a debate we should have, but it won’t start until people like the author stop fetishizing tech.[Note: The op-ed that prompted this response is one of a number of pro-technology stories the New York Times publishes as part of its Privacy Project. It’s interesting that there are few dissenting voices included in that initiative, so no realistic debate there…]
This essay originally appeared at A Cross of Silicon