Network Privacy, Online Responsibility

I’ve been poking around Canadian internet privacy laws recently as a part of my work into DH (Digital Humanities – which is actually a thing!).   Two things have really struck me in my research.  Well, three if you count an abhorrence for Bill C-30, which I am sure will return under a different guise once the kerfuffle around Vic Toews eases up.

  1. Canadian privacy laws are woefully incapable of dealing with the speed of technological change that is available online.
  2. There is an emerging and illusory concept of privacy that is being fostered by sites like YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. to which some have given the name “Network Privacy.”

The Legal Situation

The first point is a bit of a commonplace at this point.  By nature, bureaucratic democracies are sluggish, ossified, and sometimes awkward beasts.  They have to be that way because the purpose of a government bureaucracy is essentially conservative.  It is supposed to make sure that things change if and only if there is a net benefit to the system, one that does not unduly privilege one portion of the population over another.  Certain parts of the system can be agile and respond quickly to change, but the system as a whole is bound to preserving a certain ideology of citizenship and statehood.
Anyone ever see Double Indemnity?  Look familiar?
That’s why governments can’t keep up necessarily with the changes in technology.  It is supposed to take time to craft new laws and pass them.  But by the time the new law has passed, the technology has already moved on.  For instance, the academic research that is available on Facebook from as little as 4 years ago is totally outdated at this point.  To compare, it took the Canadian government 83 years after the abolishment of the Chinese head tax to apologize.  Governments move slow.
So when it comes to what happens when someone shouts “fire” online, or promulgates hate speech, or libels someone, Canadian law is actually not yet capable of dealing with the nuances of every given electronic situation.  Where the harm is clear – say, in the case of child pornography – we aren’t that bad, or at least no worse than any other Western nation.  Where the harm is more ambiguous, such as in the case of copyright infringement and meme generation, Canadian law has some serious deficiencies.

Network Privacy

The second point is far more interesting to me as a scholar of culture insofar as it seems to be an illusory artifact of interfaces that is being taken as true by the youth of Canada.
In a 2008 report published by Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management  “The Next Digital Divide: OnlineSocial Network Privacy,” the term “network privacy” was introduced to describe the perception that young Canadians have that their “personal information is considered private so long as it is limited to their social network” (8).[1]  The term is picked up again by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada in a speech to the Law Society of Upper Canada from 2010, where the issue is described in terms of “discretion:”
In a phenomenon he calls “network privacy,” Prof. Levin argues that young social networkers consider information to be private if it originates with them and is not disclosed beyond their immediate network.

Interestingly, however, they also consider information to be private if it originates outside their network – provided it doesn’t affect their established online persona.  
It all boils down, he concludes, to dignity and reputation.   

And I would add another word: discretion. Before the age of social networking, one used to be able to discuss things quietly and with candour with one’s peers, confident that the matter would not be shouted from the rooftops.  
The Privacy Commissioner’s remarks are interesting if only because they point to the disanalogies between the so-called “real” and online worlds.  That is, remarks shared in private with a group of friends at a pub may indeed be embarrassing, if they are taken out of context.  The real world provides a kind of network privacy insofar as what would be embarrassing speech at a conference can be perfectly acceptable speech among friends at a pub. 
The audience is inherently different online.
Sometimes your audience is a cat… and cats can be jerks.
The audience of an embarrassing comment online is not a group of friends.  The portability of text across media means that anything written online can be taken into other contexts with an immediacy and ease that would astonish only 20 years ago.  What one says online can indeed be shouted from the rooftops.  As the Privacy Commissioner points out, discretion must be used at all times.  The person who writes a potentially embarrassing statement online, as well as the person who repeats that statement must both use discretion.
Data is promiscuous.  Once it is out there, it doesn’t stay in a single social group, safe and secure behind ideological barriers of race, class, education, etc.  When we go online, we accept that our data – what we do, what we like, what sites we visit, how long we are on those sites, what we type when we are on a site – that all of that will be liable to being ported into a new context because that data is no longer ours.
More than that, data is for sale.  Facebook, Google+, Blogger, etc., all provide some level of privacy protection, yet in each of these cases, you don’t pay for that service and you don’t pay for that privacy.  It’s a fairly good rule of thumb that if you aren’t paying for the product, then you are yourself the product.  What that means is that companies are constantly culling your information and selling it to the highest bidder.  That’s how these sites manage to survive.  They are advertising machines, built for data mining. 
That’s not privacy.
By going online at all, we are exposing ourselves to the danger that what we do or say will come back to haunt us because as more people’s experiences of the internet are mediated through social networks like Google +, Facebook, etc, potential employers, mates and colleagues all have access to those same social networks.  Employers in particular are using Facebook for instance as a tool for assessing potential employees, and are willing to go so far as to force or trick potential workers into logging in on company computers to gain access to your information.  (For more on that issue, please check out these links here and here and here.)
Network Privacy is an illusion.  It’s an ideologically useful one, however, because it suggests control.  Control of your own identity… which is itself an illusion.


So yeah… That’s my rant for today.  I could probably talk about how ideology works here in terms of Zizek’s analysis of the state and fascism and so forth, but if anyone made it this far, I will be surprised.


It looks like the Canadian legal situation is becoming more interesting.  The BC courts have ordered that pictures that were uploaded to Facebook by a woman who is claiming grievous and long-term injury – pictures that show her hiking and scuba diving after the accident – must be handed over.

[1] I say “introduced” only because I cannot find an earlier reference to this term used in this way anywhere else.  If anyone knows of an earlier instance, I’d love to hear about it.

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