Mark Zuckerberg just knows it. Reg Whitaker declares it. Google Glass will cause it. It’s the “End of Privacy”. Old notions of privacy are replaced with new social norms of sharing and transparency. It’s coming our way, whether you like it or not.
The nation’s tech crowd seems to agree. At conferences, all of the designed-with-visual-communication-best-practices-in-mind presentations have a slide with stunning stock photography – often a macro shot of an “all-seeing” eye – and crisp typography spelling out the inevitability of personal data collection. Which, by the way, speakers ensure us, they will only use to make your life easier if you use their new game-changing app.
It is indeed difficult to argue that our ability to decide what information we want to share has improved. The Internet is a part of everyday life and sophisticated tracking tools collect your clicks and likes faster than you can change your privacy settings. On the near horizon is the “Internet of Things”, a world in which your fridge keeps track of every time you take out that pint of ice cream at 1am and don’t put it back.
On the near horizon is the “Internet of Things”, a world in which your fridge keeps track of every time you take out that pint of ice cream at 1am and don’t put it back.
With all the talk about the end of privacy, last week’s ruling of European Court of Justice (ECJ) almost seemed quaint, a well-meaning attempt to stop what can’t be stopped.
The court held that Google and other search engines violated a Spanish lawyer’s right to be forgotten by refusing to eliminate links to embarrassing articles about him in its search results. The ruling is a strong endorsement of the EU’s “Right to be Forgotten”, a right backed by the European Parliament (but not ratified by all member countries) that essentially allows people to control how information about them appears online.
The full ruling is obviously much more complex than this short summary. Not all embarrassing links from the past have to be deleted. Public figures can’t scrub their past sins. Much will come down to implementation, an area in which the court left only vague recommendations.
Beyond reality, what stops a European with a bit of tech savvy from circumventing the “censored” web at home and doing a search in the U.S.? Plus, while there might be a right to be forgotten, the internet itself will never forget.
The internet as we know it will not suddenly change because of this verdict. Privacy will not be restored overnight. Your drunken pictures from ten years ago will still be online, just harder to find. (That is, if you live in Europe and make the effort to scrub the links.)
No, the right to be forgotten and the ruling supporting it send another message: those who want to preserve their right to control their own information and believe in giving somebody a second chance don’t have to stand idly by while others – most often those who directly profit from it – declare the end of privacy. The solution might be imperfect and ultimately doomed but democratic societies still have the power to shape the impact of technology as much as it shapes them.
Just 20 years ago it was completely normal that old sins of us average, non-famous people were “forgotten” and we got a second chance. If we want the same for our children we should stop following technology where it leads us and instead try to steer it where we want it to go.