More thoughts on privacy

(Somebody280px-Do_not_disturb.svg on Quora asked, What is the social justification of privacy? adding, I am trying to ask about why individual privacy is important to society. Obviously it is preferable to individuals for a variety of reasons. But society seems to gain more from transparency. So, rather than leave my answer buried there, I decided to share it here as well.)

Society is comprised of individuals, and thick with practices and customs that respect individual needs. Privacy is one of those. Only those of us who live naked outdoors without clothing and shelter can do without privacy. The rest of us all have ways of expressing and guarding spaces we call “private” — and that others respect as well.

Private spaces are virtual as well as physical. Society would not exist without well-established norms for expressing and respecting each others’ boundaries. “Good fences make good neighbors,” says Robert Frost.

One would hardly ask to justify the need for privacy before the Internet came along; but it is a question now because the virtual world, like nature in the physical one, doesn’t come with privacy. By nature we are naked in both. The difference is that we’ve had many millennia to work out privacy in the physical world, and approximately two decades to do the same in the virtual one. That’s not enough time.

In the physical world we get privacy from clothing and shelter, plus respect for each others’ boundaries, which are established by mutual understandings of what’s private and what’s not. All of these are both complex and subtle. Clothing, for example, customarily covers what we (in English vernacular at least) call our “privates,” but also allow us selectively to expose parts of our bodies, in various ways and degrees, depending on social setting, weather and other conditions. Privacy in our sheltered spaces is also modulated by windows, doors, shutters, locks, blinds and curtains. How these signal intentions differs by culture and setting, but within each the signals are well understood, and boundaries are respected. Some of these are expressed in law as well as custom. In sum they comprise civilized life.

Yet life online is not yet civilized. We still lack sufficient means for expressing and guarding private spaces, for putting up boundaries, for signaling intentions to each other, and for signaling back respect for those signals. In the absence of those we also lack sufficient custom and law. Worse, laws created in the physical world do not all comprehend a virtual one in which all of us, everywhere in the world, are by design zero distance apart — and at costs that yearn toward zero as well. This is still very new to human experience.

In the absence of restricting customs and laws it is easy for those with the power to penetrate our private spaces (such as our browsers and email clients) to do so. This is why our private spaces online today are infected with tracking files that report our activities back to others we have never met and don’t know. These practices would never be sanctioned in the physical world, but in the uncivilized virtual world they are easy to rationalize: Hey, it’s easy to do, everybody does it, it’s normative now, transparency is a Good Thing, it helps fund “free” sites and services, nobody is really harmed, and so on.

But it’s not okay. Just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done, or that it’s the right thing to do. Nor is it right because it is, for now, normative, or because everybody seems to put up with it. The only reason people continue to put up with it is because they have little choice — so far.

Study after study show that people are highly concerned about their privacy online, and vexed by their limited ability to do anything about its absence. For example —

  • Pew reports that “93% of adults say that being in control of who can get information about them is important,” that “90% say that controlling what information is collected about them is important,” that 93% “also value having the ability to share confidential matters with another trusted person,” that “88% say it is important that they not have someone watch or listen to them without their permission,” and that 63% “feel it is important to be able to “go around in public without always being identified.”
  • Ipsos, on behalf of TRUSTe, reports that “92% of U.S. Internet users worry about their privacy online,” that “91% of U.S. Internet users say they avoid companies that do not protect their privacy,” “22% don’t trust anyone to protect their online privacy,” that “45% think online privacy is more important than national security,” that 91% “avoid doing business with companies who I do not believe protect my privacy online,” that “77% have moderated their online activity in the last year due to privacy concerns,” and that, in sum, “Consumers want transparency, notice and choice in exchange for trust.”
  • Customer Commons reports that “A large percentage of individuals employ artful dodges to avoid giving out requested personal information online when they believe at least some of that information is not required.” Specifically, “Only 8.45% of respondents reported that they always accurately disclose personal information that is requested of them. The remaining 91.55% reported that they are less than fully disclosing.”
  • The Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania reports that “a majority of Americans are resigned to giving up their data—and that is why many appear to be engaging in tradeoffs.” Specifically, “91% disagree (77% of them strongly) that ‘If companies give me a discount, it is a fair exchange for them to collect information about me without my knowing.'” And “71% disagree (53% of them strongly) that ‘It’s fair for an online or physical store to monitor what I’m doing online when I’m there, in exchange for letting me use the store’s wireless internet, or Wi-Fi, without charge.'”

There are both policy and market responses to these findings. On the policy side, Europe has laws protecting personal data that go back to the Data Protection Directive of 1995. Australia has similar laws going back to 1988. On the market side, Apple now has a strong pro-privacy stance, posted Privacy – Apple, taking the form an open letter to the world from CEO Tim Cook. One excerpt:

“Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products. We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers. We don’t ‘monetize’ the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don’t read your email or your messages to get information to market to you. Our software and services are designed to make our devices better. Plain and simple.”

But we also need tools that serve us as personally as do our own clothes. And we’ll get them. The collection of developers listed here by ProjectVRM are all working on tools that give individuals ways of operating privately in the networked world. The most successful of those today are the ad and tracking blockers listed under Privacy Protection. According to the latest PageFair/Adobe study, the population of persons blocking ads online passed 200 million in May of 2015, with a 42% annual increase in the U.S. and an 82% rate in the U.K. alone.

These tools create and guard private spaces in our online lives by giving us ways to set boundaries and exclude unwanted intrusions. These are primitive systems, so far, but they do work and are sure to evolve. As they do, expect the online world to become as civilized as the offline one — eventually.

For more about all of this, visit my Adblock War Series.



  1. Esme’s avatar

    Your observations on privacy in the real world versus online are right on the mark. I would add that privacy in face-to-face communications, like privacy of physical space (body-clothing and shelter-house), has had time to evolve in different cultures over time.

    In all cultures, it’s considered impolite for a stranger to ask people about (what the culture considers to be) “private” matters, or for the strange to talk about his own “private” matters.

    Example: Foreigners are shocked by what Americans tell total strangers in the supermarket queue and what Americans confess to on TV shows like Oprah. It seems, to many foreigners, very tawdry, to be broadcasting such personal (private) things.

    In addition, what is considered to be a private matter and therefore, not supposed to be told to anyone but family and close friends, changes over time. I suspect that in America, a long time ago (say the 1930s), many things also used to be strictly private matters but now are broadcast to everyone (on TV, social media, in person).

    In Asia, you notice that Filipinos are much more open about their family lives and more likely to ask you about your family life (whether you have children, are married, etc.) than Japanese people. The range of matters that are considered to be public versus private is much broader in the Philippines and does not require the same level of closeness (i.e being a family member or close friend) that it does in other countries like Japan.

  2. Timothy Grayson’s avatar


    Can’t argue with the sentiment or the ultimate assessment of why this is problematic right now (hundreds if not thousands of years to adjust social and legal norms v. a decade or so). At the risk of making something that seems straight-forward and simple, complicated and political, it is not about hiding. It’s about protecting. Specifically protecting what we “own.” Often, the best way to protect something is to hide it.

    One could argue, as is so eloquently done in Genesis, that the point of hiding privates is shame. Practically, for those who align less to the biblical and more to the evolutionary, it’s about protecting what’s important. Same goes for those things: property, thoughts, and other attributes. All of which we “own,” in some form. Privacy is about keeping what’s ours safe and protecting until and except when we’re satisfied that there is greater value (or alternative protections) in exposing our private things than not. Hence we undress (when we feel personally safe and comfortable), we write for publication (when we know our thoughts will be attributed back to us), we put our inventions in the the public realm (when there is sufficient IP protection), we tell the banker what our income is (when getting the loan/mortgage demands it), and so on.

    We have had an approximately two-decade long experiment, with the Web, to do what you’ve described: upend what is and can be protected. On the one hand, technology has moved faster than our social brains so we assume what was protective before will remain so in this new environment. (Oops.) On the other hand, we’ve followed a callow and utopian siren’s call to be transparent, open, and free in the liberty that is the Internet. (As a side-bar, I just re-read Barlow’s Declaration. I’m sure its potentiality was even more seductive at the time.) We’ve pursued it with consumerist eyes rolled back in our heads at the smell of a well-placed offer or deal or convenience, enabled by the magic of the Internet, like a Tiger shark in chum.

    We pushed or allowed the promise of greater things and run-away technological development to affect what is otherwise a near genetic need to own and hold private. As always, the pendulum will swing back. Ad and tracking blockers are, as you say, the first primitive recoil. There will be more. Which, by the way, will create even more need for technological development. So, it’s all good.


  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Great points, as always, Esme.

    And Timothy, you’re right that I missed the protection point, which is essential.

    I went looking for where I might have made that point earlier, but didn’t find it. But I did find a much longer (and, I think, better) post than this one, here, in my Adblock War Series.

    As you say, the pendulum will swing back. How long it will take, or how well it will go, is anybody’s guess.

  4. Hanan Cohen’s avatar

    I really like what David Brooks wrote about The Lost Language of Privacy. I don’t agree with his conclusions but his “basics” are spot on.

    Privacy is important to the development of full individuals because there has to be an interior zone within each person that other people don’t see. There has to be a zone where half-formed thoughts and delicate emotions can grow and evolve, without being exposed to the harsh glare of public judgment. There has to be a place where you can be free to develop ideas and convictions away from the pressure to conform. There has to be a spot where you are only yourself and can define yourself.

    Privacy is important to families and friendships because there has to be a zone where you can be fully known. There has to be a private space where you can share your doubts and secrets and expose your weaknesses with the expectation that you will still be loved and forgiven and supported.

    Privacy is important for communities because there has to be a space where people with common affiliations can develop bonds of affection and trust. There has to be a boundary between us and them. Within that boundary, you look out for each other; you rally to support each other; you cut each other some slack; you share fierce common loyalties.

    All these concentric circles of privacy depend on some level of shrouding. They depend on some level of secrecy and awareness of the distinction between the inner privileged space and the outer exposed space. They depend on the understanding that what happens between us stays between us.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Hanan. Beautifully put passage from David Brooks. (Hope you don’t mind that I put it in blockquote, so it’s clear that Brooks is speaking.)

  6. Yerbury’s avatar

    A whole generation is growing up without the faintest idea of what digital privacy is and the implications of the lack of privacy. Their default position is no-privacy based on not knowing anything different. This is just too scary.

  7. Yerbury’s avatar


    Interesting article about security and privacy which is slightly UK-centric but the message is still pretty clear and provides examples from history.

  8. Frank Wilhoit’s avatar

    Note that there is a rural notion of privacy and an urban notion of privacy — not just of what privacy is, but of why it is or is not a good thing.

    Those two notions are absolutely irreconcilable, and they speak to the very deepest level of what it means to be human — to the point where rural and urban civilizations cannot coexist.

    The political institutions of the United States have been dedicated, from the very first, to glossing over this distinction and maintaining the toxic fiction that it does not exist. We see the result today.

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Yerbury, thanks for the Guardian link. Good one. As for what you say about “a whole generation,” I think that’s not quite true. There is plenty of research showing millennials (or at least some of them) do care about privacy. That said, This old Onion piece still rings true enough.

    Frank, can you unpack what you mean by rural and urban notions of privacy? I’m sure there are differences, but I’m missing the particulars.

  10. Joseph Ratliff’s avatar


    Here is the answer I gave to the same question (gets a little philosophical)…

    The fact that transparency was brought in as a justification for a “better” society is telling. Here are my two points…

    1. Why do you think transparency “seems” to be a thing that society “gains” from? Think about the motive behind that idea. There are multiple layers to the motive, some are okay (I suppose), and some aren’t (corporate, advertising, tracking, NSA, etc…).

    Transparency is marketed as “better” partly (not wholly) because of the media itself, so that companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google et al can make their money. If we weren’t “transparent” at all, they couldn’t collect our content and tailor advertising to us (as an over-simplified example).

    So the version of transparency we encounter in our society is an illusion … and a follow up question would be “How was society before all of this ‘transparency’ we have now?”

    My answer … in the big picture, about the same specifically as it refers to transparency defined by all of us exposing ourselves online via the media tools available (each with a profit-driven responsibility to investors and shareholders).

    That being said … the one big caveat to this being there are specific situations where the idea of transparency can help society. I am concerned (big picture) about our overall ability as a society to properly manage that transparency when you factor in the totality of the interests in using this transparency as a tool for societal improvement.

    Any media tool can be used for both good and bad purposes.

    Which brings me to #2…

    2. We harbor the illusion that privacy always means “something or things bad we hide from everybody else all of the time.”

    That is hardly ever the actual case in reality. Not never the case, because privacy is also a tool of sorts … so it can be used for both bad and good purposes.

    So, from a societal standpoint … which is the basis of your question…

    Privacy is absolutely necessary to provide the opportunity for honest, good, and well-meaning people in our society (most people) to have a place that is difficult (hopefully impossible) for any part of the rest of society (containing those wishing to harm) to exploit that place of privacy in any way. A place of privacy is what allows us to be truly human, to be ourselves.

    Yes, that does include the “bad” things like allowing “bad” people that same privacy. But the way I see it, our privacy is one thing we cannot sacrifice in the name of some societal mission to accomplish other objectives (whatever those objectives may be, which aren’t always clearly defined).

    Bad things will always happen, and taking privacy away (in the name of some version of full transparency) won’t solve that problem. It will merely change the kinds of problems we encounter (which will likely be just as “bad” as the problems we had with the opportunity for an area of privacy, just in different ways).

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