Sorry Mark, your idea of privacy isn’t the same as mine

May 18, 2019; Publisher: ; Format:

The rhetoric at Facebook – the most significant social media platform in the world – is changing. In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg claimed that privacy was no longer a ‘social norm.’ Today, the same man is now spruiking the line that ‘the future is private.’ At the company’s recent developer conference, F8, this was the buzz phrase.

There is something encouraging about this cultural shift in a corporation that holds such power. It shows that when we speak up and agitate around privacy and data mining we can have an impact. Zuckerberg also famously remarked how the idea that his platform was responsible for misinformation spreading around the 2016 US election was ‘wrong.’ Last month he invited regulators to take away the almost total power his company has over regulating speech. The capitalist behemoths of the digital age often seem untouchable, but they operate in a social context and, like any powerful actor, they are subject to the influence of organised people who will not shut up.

Having said all that, it’s also important to be sanguine: we should not to equate good company marketing with progress. Zuckerberg’s vision of privacy shares some significant differences with how most people understand the concept. Often when in these discussions about privacy, it is framed as the right to an individual world, sealed off from view. Especially among technology capitalists, privacy is defined in libertarian terms at best – the right to be let alone, unmolested by the state. At worst, it is a glib claim about data management hollowed out by the yards of fine print contained in the terms of service.

Privacy is such a sprawling concept in the digital age, being both a word that has many meanings, and a right that is difficult to confine. Its expansive nature can make it vulnerable to misuse and co-option. But it can also make it a powerful claim for doing things differently, around which we can start to rally many diverse interests.

In this spirit, it is important to be clear: privacy not just about consumer choice, it’s also about creating space outside of the market. Private groups might be slightly more comforting cyber spaces, but the essential topography remains the same. Facebook’s core business model shapes the landscape and how we occupy it. The company continues to package up data about our behaviour and make it available for marketing purposes. This is the essence of surveillance capitalism – a concept explored in Shoshana Zuboff’s new book on the topic (I have a review coming out shortly).

A better understanding of privacy will not be limited to design concepts around social media groups, or clickwrap contractual terms. It needs to encompass how privacy is an essential component of our agency as human beings. Agency, to be explore and expressed fully, requires that we have space outside the influence of capitalism – to have freedom from market forces seeking to manipulate our unconscious. And the unconscious exists as “neither individual nor collective,” writes the philosopher Mladen Dolar, but rather “precisely between the two, in the very establishment of the ties between an individual (becoming a subject) and a group to which s/he would belong.” In other words, there is a dialectic process at play between the social forces that shape us and our own personality. The baron capitalists of the data era seek to monetise this space – the right to privacy is the theoretical foundation for resistance. We need to elevate privacy to its full rhetorical potential, and recognise how it is both paradoxically individual and collective, and is defined not by consumer choice but agency.

Privacy is something that Facebook cannot offer. Unless the company is prepared to change their entire business model, Mark Zuckerberg’s idea of privacy is never going to be the same as mine.