TOC Public Thanksgiving not due to state of privacy Your Turn

November 29, 2013

Foremost in prompting the demise of my weekly fillip in defense of eprivacy was the conviction my tale was told. For seven years, I had related my progressive discovery of how the current lack of data privacy was intimately linked with most of today's major issues. Why repeat myself?

Whether in the daily management of what we believe to be democracies or in long term attempts to adapt the economy to the coming Information Age, society seems to see no solution short of scuttling all efforts promoting privacy. Yet there is no such need to trade off privacy for peace, progress and prosperity. Indeed the opposite is true. Eprivacy is a prerequisite if the Information Age is to deliver on its promises. For eprivacy is the fount of sustainable economic growth in the future, without which social solidarity flounders and states wither.

While the news continue to bring us its daily crop of privacy violations, "I told you so" is a term which endears no one to those left under a burden they feel unable to lift. Rather than rehashed lessons, I find irony and sarcasm to be better weapons. Still such reactions are inappropriate when a serious essay about privacy is published. This invites, indeed demands a debate.

Building upon the insights of Paul Baran, Spiros Simitis, Tal Zarsky and Jürgen Habermas, Evgeny Morozov recommends we "link[...] the future of privacy with the future of democracy in a way that refuses to reduce privacy either to markets or to laws" (*). He further suggests that "refusing to make money off your own data might be as political an act as refusing to drive a car or eat meat". Go and read the whole text.

Evgeny Morozov is right to highlight the political dimension of privacy. Recall Lawrence Lessig reached the same conclusion. Ponder two points especially, on the risks we run first by "allowing social institutions to enforce standards of behavior", second by submitting to problematic pattern recognition techniques when they can offer no rational explanation on "why and how" they reach their results. Welcome to the Planet of the Apps.

Yet the very value of Evgeny Morozov's arguments makes the shortcoming of his analysis all the more dangerous. Diminish the role of laws and markets, demonize monetizing our own data, and you undermine privacy, Evgeny Morozov's very goal. His is not the only voice to be so suspicious of money. Yochai Benkler too wanted information to be free from its fetters. Even if not to be shared, such positions must first be understood.

Time to turn to Simon Kuper's column on how the fate of factory workers heralds the future of the middle class. "Today most working-class jobs entail serving people, pouring coffee, driving taxis or looking after toddlers or geriatrics", all occupations he finds to be "servile work" (**).

As automation moves from the making of material goods in high volume to the mass delivery of personalized information, intellectual jobs disappear too. For Simon Kuper however a new divide will arise between "people who chose their job" and "people who don't". But what if you chose to be a teacher, a singer or a journalist? Short of being a star, you will barely scrape a living tomorrow and, whether a personal tutor, jester or secretary, will you find it more rewarding and less servile than serving in other domestic employs? Forced to seek an identity "through consumption", aren't the young already flocking together under the liveries of their favorite brands?

If using money in a transaction or performing a personal service suffer from an original stain, this stems from society's traditional associations, money with mercenary motives, service with servility. Real enough but shouldn't work itself come under suspicion? Harry Eyres asks "why are we all so addicted to work? Why do we assume that working harder and harder is an unquestionable value?" (***). Greece and Rome held the only life worth living one of leisure, work being for slaves or freedmen. If their views appear so antiquated to us, should ours be more durable?

Work should not be an end in itself, nor should it be a mark of servility. And if human service leaves our soul with a spot we cannot seem to wash away, the stain comes from the soul rather than the service. Similarly the stain of money is not intrinsic but in the way we use it to fulfill our transactions and escape any further liability. The more we move towards what I call value markets, where money is but a component of a transaction, the harder it will be to deny our social responsibilities. And when transactions turn into relations, machines cannot replace the human beings involved.

Here then is the real issue. No economy can be efficient unless money circulates throughout the whole society. How can this legally come to pass if there are no longer enough jobs which pay a living wage? "Providing a monthly income to every citizen, no strings attached"? Americans may find this Swiss proposal reported by Annie Lowrey (****) a bit unpalatable. John Harwood hints that writing about "a commitment to the redistribution of economic resources" is enough today to forfeit any position in the US Government which is subject to a Senate confirmation (*****).

If neither the job market nor redistributive social justice are sufficient, why spurn on principle my own suggestion that personal data, the one asset enjoyed by everyone, should provide us with a way to make money, if only we adapted our markets and our laws?

Evgeny Morozov's fault is not to want "to politicize the debate about privacy". It is not when he warns us against refusing "matching responsibilities" while accepting the terms set by organizations under the unverifiable pretense they act for our good. Nor is it when he warns us we would be fool to condone this submissive status by taking a payment in exchange for our own data.

Evgeny Morozov's first fault is to assume that we live in a democracy, instead of a pronaocracy. In fact we need privacy to reestablish democracy as much as we need democracy to achieve privacy. And we cannot hope to free politics unless we too tackle the task of freeing laws and markets.

Evgeny Morozov's second fault is to caricature what privacy would offer "under a property regime". According to him consumers could "either "rent" [their data] in the way Netflix rents movies [...] or sell it [...] under tightly controlled conditions". Yet with ePrio's technology (1), personal data does not have to be "viewed" by anyone in order to generate income. If Netflix could get us to rent for a fee movies we could not watch, wouldn't Netflix at least considers this as a very different opportunity? Plus doing away with "data lockers" diminishes the risk the NSA comes sniffing their way.

Once it is understood that privacy does not have to be traded away to gain economic benefits from one's personal data, much added-value can be unlocked. With ePrio technology, one's very own friends could become the principal source of personal information on oneself and be rewarded for this activity and yet never disclose this data to anyone but ourselves. Even money could reward recommendations without corrupting them.

For the Information Age to deliver on its promises, we must revise our views about work, money, politics, privacy, and avoid caricaturing the truth.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ......... All the privacy solutions you hear about are on the wrong track, by Evgeny Morozov (Technology Review) - November/December, 2013
  • (**) ....... The middle-class identity crisis, by Simon Kuper (Financial Times) - November 9, 2013
  • (***) ..... Why work so hard?, by Harry Eyres (Financial Times) - November 16, 2013
  • (****) ... Take One Income, Please, by Annie Lowrey (New York Times Magazine) - November 17, 2013
  • (*****) . Don't Dare Call The Health Law 'Redistribution', by John Harwood (New York Times) - November 24, 2013
  • (1) for more details, see US Patents Number 6,092,197 and 7,945,954 and US Patent Application 2009/0076914.
November 2013
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