TOC Privacy, Identity, Responsibility Your Turn

June 23, 2009

Mottoes matter. Long before soundbites and tweets, they encapsulated the priorities of their adopters. Long before the Internet, the most famous claimed world wide reach. Compared to the revolutionary "Liberty, equality, fraternity" (1), my motto may seem a modest mimic. Do not confuse the modesty of its author with its intrinsic value. "Privacy, identity, responsibility" must become the motto of the Information Age if our modernity is not to dissolve into a failed society.

A good motto generates controversy. My demands for instance run contrary to a general human tendency to flee from responsibilities. How quickly indeed people shift their moral burden onto technology itself, turning from the "yes, we can" of aspirations into a "since we can, we may" of evasions.

John Gapper timely reminds us that technology bears no responsibility for the way it is used (*). "The events in Iran tempt us to view digital technology as a purely liberating force", he writes, "but do not count out [its] repressive uses". Twitter has indeed become a communication tool for "opposition sympathisers", as Najmeh Bozorgmehr reports from Teheran (**). Yet a more lasting lesson is how the stakes keep rising.

This is in essence the conclusion reached by the Article 29 Working Party (2), whose lovely name must make all bureaucrats proud. Looking at the growth of social networks and how it affects eprivacy, these European experts "said it was time to cast a closer eye over this area of internet activity" in the words of Richard Waters (***) (3).

Eric Schmidt is likely to agree, if not on the threat to eprivacy, at least on the size of his stakes. Google is under legal attack from Italian prosecutors for having broadcast "footage of a disabled boy being bullied", as documented by Vincent Boland and Richard Waters (****). Meanwhile Edward Yong tells us the Chinese administration "warn[ed Google] that the company would be punished", "saying the site was linking too often to pornographic and vulgar content" (*****).

Rising stakes would not be such an issue if our world were boundless. As today's critics of data rights like to stress, traditional societies were not known to protect their members' privacy. But most of the time, escape was available. To seal one's past, one became a soldier or took to the road. Not so easy today. According to James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, the prying eyes of the National Security Agency may admit no limits (******). And Saul Hansell's "bits blog" warns us PayPal "scours the Web, much as a search engine does, for clues about [a user's] history" (*******). Their reasonable assumption is that honest people leave a million little pieces behind them whose absence or inconsistence expose fraudsters.

Worst of all, successful Internet companies can reach a global scale in the blink of an eye. Twitter was founded in 2006. A year later Ethan Zuckerman was telling his MIT audience how an Egyptian activist used its service to rally his supporters as he was being driven to jail. Two more years have passed and it plays such an important role in Iran that "the US administration urged it to delay a network upgrade".

Am I castigating Twitter for its success? Am I recommending we turn off the Internet to solve society's problems? Hardly. My point is that significant responsibilities are thrown upon immature companies which, like adolescents, may be in dire need of guidance, especially when faced with the need to become profitable. The temptation runs high when one understands eprivacy is all about money.

For comic relief, let us turn to the issue of identity. As Brad Stone has it, "Keeping a True Identity Becomes a Battle Online" (********). Since last week for instance Facebook "[distributes] new vanity addresses [...] on a first-come-first-serve basis". This obviously creates problems for Mr James Carter or Ms Christine Martin, of which Facebook lists "more than 500". A slightly more mature approach would have researched how names evolve. As it happens, society does not like confusion and has a simple rule to avoid it. Let the neighbors add names.

How else did Cicero get his name (4)? Funny a social network like Facebook has not thought about it? What a social game it would be to ask one's friends to come up with a qualifier and battle it out among all friends' groups. Do I hear James Peanut Carter and Christine Martin Montrésor (5)?

If the information service industry needs guidance, who is to provide it? The responsibility rests with governments but rule making is notoriously tricky. These fillips have provided some advice but nothing lasting can be built if fundamental data rights are denied either existence or exigence.

When the Financial Times comes down in favor of "a coherent framework of regulation" (*********), one should in fact be very concerned. The Financial Times acts as a data aggregator and one should not trust wolves to protect the sheep, lest results be eviscerated. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, has called for an investigation of electoral fraud, hasn't he? Voiding the voice of voters and coercing the consent of consumers do have much in common. Although writing for the Financial Times, John Gapper has shown his ambivalence with regards to behavioral advertising. Mir-Hossein Mousavi Khameneh (6) may provide a role model.

Will respected figures of the establishment challenge the status quo under the fighting motto of "privacy, identity, responsibility"?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ................. Technology is a tool for revolution (and repression), by John Gapper (Financial Times) - June 20, 2009
  • (**) ............... Twitter goes on but foreign TV takes lead role, by Najmeh Bozorgmehr (Financial Times) - June 18 , 2009
  • (***) ............. Privacy fears rise over spate of applications, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - June 18, 2009
  • (****) ........... Google executives face privacy charges over video of bullied boy, by Vincent Boland and Richard Waters (Financial Times) - June 22, 2009
  • (*****) ......... Some Functions Are Blocked On Google's Chinese Version, by Edward Wong (New York Times) - June 19, 2009
  • (******) ....... Extent of E-Mail Surveillance Renews Concerns in Congress, by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau (New York Times) - June 17, 2009
  • (*******) ..... Paypal's Tools To Fight Fraud, by Saul Hansell (New York Times) - June 22, 2009
  • (********) ... Keeping a True Identity Becomes a Battle Online, by Brad Stone (New York Times) - June 18, 2009
  • (*********) . editorial column (Financial Times) - June 22, 2009
  • (1) see Liberty, equality, fraternity in the wikipedia
  • (2) see the site of the Art.29 Data Protection Working Party
  • (3) see the art. 29 working party opinion on social networking
  • (4) see Cicero in the wikipedia
  • (5) notice that extra given names picked by parents are not as robust a mechanism. Facebook already lists two James Earl Carter.
  • (6) see Mir-Hossein Mousavi in the wikipedia
June 2009
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