The End of Privacy as Triumph of Neoliberalism

by Felix Stalder
Originally published in Telepolis (May 12, 1999)
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Noncommercial use and feedback [] encouraged. For other purposes, contact author.

Recently (May 1st, 1999), the Economist ran on its front cover a story on The End of Privacy. The article seemed to state the obvious: as more and more of our communication is electronically mediated, more and more of our communication leaves trails, recorded by someone, somewhere. Privacy, it is said, is a residual value which has eroded over the last decade and will continue to erode over the next. The reason for its disappearance is not Big Brother, the evil, centralized authority, but the consumer's willingness to give a away, bit by bit, more and more private information in exchange for this or that benefit. The cumulative, unintended consequence is to render privacy impossible. Under these circumstances, privacy advocates fight a noble and righteous battle, and even though we all wish they would win, they are doomed to loose not just the battle but the war. This is as much inevitable as the progress of technology itself. Acknowledging that is nothing but acknowledging the obvious, nothing but a pragmatic and realistic view on reality, so is the gospel according to the Economist.

But of course, the more things seem to be natural, the more they are political and in this case, the politics are pressing. In October 1998, the EU Data Protection directive came into force, which aims at giving individuals unprecedented ownership and control over their personal information. The really tricky part states that no data can be exported into countries which do not have similarly strong privacy protection: most notably, North America. While Canada is scrambling to put new legislation in place to meet European standards (Bill C 54), the US are gearing up for a trade war. And the End of Privacy argument is part of this war. The issue that is being fought over is simple: is there anything that is allowed to slow down the development of business, is there any price too high to be paid for its expansion? The neoliberal answer is: no! Expansion and growth are ultimate values in themselves. While such an argument is usually coated with free market optimism, in the case of privacy protection, even the staunchest proponent must admit that the market "has failed abysmally". Privacy protection is impossible under market rule and only way not to acknowledge this is to claim that privacy is doomed anyway, no matter what we do. Fighting against the inevitable trend, the argument goes, is like Don Quixote running up against the wind mills, noble but delusional.

The article is an example, as good as any, of what Ignacio Ramonet calls "pensee unique", the One-Idea-System of neo-liberalism, which masks the most ideological claims as 'natural', 'realistic' or 'pragmatic' [1]. In this case, ubiquitous creation of sensitive personal data and access to them by anyone able to pay for it. What is natural about that? Nothing! While it is indeed difficult to control digital information once it has been created or gathered, it is possible to prevent data from being created. The introduction of the Pentium III chip (with sports a unique ID number that can be retrieved over the Net) has nothing to do with the unstoppable "tidal wave" of technological progress, but everything with the transformation of the Internet from an environment built for information sharing to one optimized for information selling. While it suits e-commerce interests, such a chip would be impossible, not inevitable, with the proper privacy rights in place. Similarly, unconditionally untraceable e-cash is possible but there is no commercial interest in implementing it as long as privacy infringements are legal and profitable. Data trails, as anything online, are constructed, and their paths are indicative of the culture and interests of those constructing them.

The privacy fights often seem like stale old debates about opting in or opting out. However, the opposite is the case. It's precisely because this issue is so old and so often rehashed that it's easily understood and can mobilize significant resistance. In a way, "the right to be left alone" is the only globally shared civil value. It's the only issue through which more complex civil values such as accountability, control and self-determination can be brought into mainstream discourse. Abandoning privacy, thus, is the ultimate surrender to unfettered rule of business interests. Which is, of course, what the Economist would like to happen.

[1] Ramonet, Igancio (1998). Geopolitics of Chaos: Internationalization, Cyberculture & Political Chaos (translated by Andrea Lyn Sacara). New York: Algora Publishing
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