Privacy and Freedom in the Internet Age – 16.06.2014

Barely a quarter-century old, the Internet has revolutionized social and economic institutions to an unimaginable extent; and it’s hard to keep up with developments, never mind predict where it will lead. Those who do venture predictions put forward the most diverse set of scenarios : from the cyberoptimists who see in the internet a tool for social levelling and better governance to the cyberpessimists who see in it the realization (a generation late) of George Orwell’s predictions in 1984. Despite the lack of clarity, we’re all called upon to navigate its uncharted waters. In this evening’s discussion, we’ll look at the impact of the internet on social values and institutions, and on the freedom of the individual to live in ways which may not concord with current mainstream attitudes.
This is a question not only about the interest which the state and big business might take in ones social values and behavior, but also social institutions more generally: family, friends, employers and other social groups. This has been a hard topic to research and I am struggling a bit to give it a rounded treatment, so apologies in advance if my own views tend to creep into this one a bit more than I would have ideally liked. I guess that shouldn’t stop us having an interesting discussion. It’s also written from a Eurocentric perspective, certainly the only perspective on this question which I am qualified to adopt.

Why does the internet have all my data?

I think it’s helpful to start out with a reminder why we use the internet in the first place – why and how has it been so successful in modifying the way we live our social and professional lives. After all, if the internet has our information, it is because at some point we have imagined an advantage to giving it. Of course, the internet has a vast array of applications, some of which are attractive purely by virtue of their convenience. Amazon and Ebay are well-known examples. One might think that it is advantageous and perhaps not of overriding concern that Amazon knows something of my taste in books. Nevertheless, even Amazon knows a lot about me; and if we are inclined to be paranoid we can recall the words of the great Cardinal Richelieu: “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.” As the availability of six lines by me is, under any scenario, likely to be easy to come by (and even in the pre-internet age not to have been too difficult), it might seem that the problem is situated more on the side of limiting arbitrary misuse of power than on that of storage of personal data itself. In other words, it is a problem of law and justice, and culture. But the most significant applications of internet for present purposes are social media, which many people are attracted to because they offer an outlet to a number of basic sociobiological urges, including the urges to form a tribe, to mate, and to acquire social status and recognition. Social media also offers social proof, creating trust which allows transactions to occur which otherwise might not, or only at greater cost, such as on room rental site Airbnb; it has also breathed life into the gift economy, as seen for instance with Couchsurfing. The ability to accumulate fiduciary social capital on line has real world advantages.

Prometheus Unbound?

The information society functions in a far more tribal manner than did its predecessors, with overlapping neo-tribal units supplanting the social institutions of authority such as schools and the traditional media in their role of acculturation and symbolic reproduction. These networks are to a considerable extent autarchic and they are of course self-selected. The sociology of the emerging information society has hardly been mapped, but it does seem intrinsically opposed to hierarchical mediation of knowledge and social norms, and in this sense to exercise a considerable leveling effect. One may, certainly, try to influence users of social media, but it seems a considerably more difficult enterprise than in the days of simple broadcast and printed media. Rather, we seem to see echos in online social networks of Proudhon’s principle of spontaneous order at work, which I mentioned in the discussion notes for the earlier session on democracy.

Today, the news I read, the viewpoints to which I am exposed, the events I attend, all betray a far greater influence of my chosen social circle than in the past. This situation would seem inevitably to undermine, at least in the short term, social cohesion, dissettling conservative social discourses. In the information age, groups live alongside each other, but may interact much more with people further away with whom they feel greater affinity. The commonality of values on which democratic society has been founded – what sociologists call culture – can no longer be taken for granted. Prometheus is unbound – and that might seem an irreversible process. But will Shelley’s prediction come to pass? “This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be / Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free” [1]

It seems to me a very open question whether there are endogenous processes at work which will eventually result in renewed social convergence, but it does seem certain that, if this is the case, the point on which these processes will converge will be very different from the past, because the forceful propagation of ideology is undermined. The only strong force possibly allowing for convergence is our underlying shared biological, or spiritual, nature. Thus it seems to me that the forces of social control and the tendency to conform, which also operate on the internet, the transparency of which it might be feared would reinforce them, are at least to some degree held in check, if not indeed trumped, by the loss of a locus of moral authority and therefore of an intersubjectively shared point of reference for such conformity. And the loss of culture necessitates, genetically, the rise of an ethic of tolerance.

In the philosophical tradition, the notion of tolerance – which was scarcely on the radar before the 18th century with the precocious exception of Spinoza and only guardedly admitted by thinkers such as Kant – has been approached from an epistemological and a pragmatic/political angle. The epistemological claim is that one should tolerate the opinions and beliefs of the other because it is impossible to coerce belief, because such coercion is not useful, and because of uncertainty as to ones own claims to truth. This idea can be developed into a claim about the importance of diversity, dialogue, and debate for the establishment of truth. The political approach is best epitomized by John Rawls, who argued that individuals will come to tolerate one another because they will find reasons to agree about certain principles of justice that will include principles of tolerance, based upon what he called “reasonable pluralism.” [2]


The role of the state to defend individual rights – which it clearly does only imperfectly – may, however, come into conflict with its arguably more basic duty to ensure security. In defending the need for surveillance, some politicians and right-wing activists argue along the lines of “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?” (paradoxically enough, those very activists are probably the ones with the most to hide, as we have seen again and again). There are – it seems to me – several things profoundly wrong with this attitude.

The concern to find a way of preserving human freedom in a world where human beings are increasingly dependent on one another for the satisfaction of their needs is not new: it is a central theme in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau, though, was clearly no anarchist: he believed that freedom necessitates state institutions which consecrate freedom as a central value. This has long been an influential idea in political philosophy but it has suffered from an inherent ambivalence which is already present in Rousseau’s distinction between civil and republican freedom, “freedom-to” and “freedom-from“. Moreover, Rousseau would not have had Proudhon’s faith in the benevolence of self-organization but rather insisted on a strong ideological role for the state, one which, it seems to me, it is – happily – no longer positioned to play. Nevertheless, proponents of state surveillance consistently argue its purpose to be protective of civil liberties, freedom-from.

This position may be sincerely held and it may even up to a point be true; the question is whether the powers entrusted with the role of surveillance can be trusted, and this as ever is an issue of law and of checks and balances. As Bruce Schneier points out in this clip, “surveillance is the business model of the internet“, and all governments are doing is what corporations already do, albeit for purposes which are vague and using undercover methods. “Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect.” [3]

Rousseau already suspected there was a psychological dimension to freedom, and this has been confirmed by much recent evidence. Biologist Peter Watts has argued that, whilst it is popular to argue that blanket surveillance treats us like criminals, in fact it’s deeper than that: it makes us feel like prey. Indeed, the sentiment of being watched generates in us a very primal fear which not only considerably raises levels of anxiety but also paralyzes creativity. We need to be able to trust the forces in our environment in order to maintain teamwork and community; and when we don’t we are on track to a very desolate existence. At the same time, the power of this fear may also transform it into paranoia and hysteria, creating a perception of threat where in reality there is none. There are certainly bogeymen aplenty in the dark depths of our psyche; that does not mean that our fears accurately represent the world.


Crypto-anarchy is the belief that strong cryptography will bring about social change which some view with enthusiasm and others trepidation. In the words of Timothy May‘s 1988 Manifesto : “Computer technology is on the verge of providing the ability for individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other in a totally anonymous manner. …The State will of course try to slow or halt the spread of this technology, citing national security concerns, use of the technology by drug dealers and tax evaders, and fears of societal disintegration. Many of these concerns will be valid; crypto anarchy will allow national secrets to be traded freely and will allow illicit and stolen materials to be traded. An anonymous computerized market will even make possible abhorrent markets for assassinations and extortion. Various criminal and foreign elements will be active users of CryptoNet. But this will not halt the spread of crypto anarchy.

May’s prophecy seems largely to have come to pass, at least so far: as sites like The Silk Road have shown; though others argue that governments may always be a step behind, but ultimately their greater firepower will allow them to win out. Others argue that cybercriminals may stay ahead of the game, but ordinary citizens will suffer from surveillance attempts.

One surprisingly articulate cyberanarchist is Cody Wilson, who became famous for publishing in 2013 information making it possible to 3-D print a functioning pistol.

Whether anonymity on the web is definitively out of the reach of ordinary citizens is not so clear: Bitcoin is relatively accessible, and there is clearly a demand for anonymity and greater control as apps like Snapchat and Whatsapp show. The early days of the internet were very much marked by anonymity, and where there is demand there is also supply. Jurisdictions with stronger rules on online privacy may find themselves at a competitive advantage to host social internet services, in which case economic considerations may work to the advantage of privacy (it being hard to imagine an international treaty to enable closer surveillance). Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to be a convert to partial web anonymity. The limited successes realized by the various national versions of the Pirate Party might also work to put the issue more centrally on the political agenda – though catastrophes are always ably used to set such arguments aside.

Coming out of the closet

So how should we manage our identity on the Internet? Should we? And is it even possible? A cautious approach seems to make sense, but at the same time it seems it is always going to be well within the ability of increasingly many actors with access to technology to piece together a personality profile from our activity on line. The question may be less, what do we have to hide, and more, why are we hiding it? As everyone’s private life is increasingly exposed to the light of day, the “don’t ask don’t tell” bargain underlying traditional state morality seems to be increasingly untenable. A bifurcation seems possible: either towards less diversity in private life or towards more tolerance in public life; and different societies may take different routes.

Ultimately I cannot call this out, but insofar as we can be agents of our own destiny, and it seems to be human nature to wish to be so, I would argue that we have a collective duty to disclose and to celebrate as long as we can safely do so; we should err on the side of courage and not cynically try to micromanage our public on line persona. This duty of disclosure has long been debated in the LGBT community, arriving, I think at a clear moral consensus. People live in the closet because of shame. However, living life in the closet, whilst for some it may be a necessary survival strategy, perpetuates the invisibility of LGBT people and allows societal homophobia and heterosexism free rein. Moreover the closet is being broken into: it is no longer a safe place to stay.

Coming out of the closet has even been shown by researchers in Montreal to have significant positive effects on health. This study goes so far as to note that “contrary to our expectations, gay and bisexual men had lower depressive symptoms and allostatic load levels than heterosexual men.” (emphasis added) This may have been contrary to the researchers’ expectations, but it perfectly coincides with mine: heterosexual men and women live their lives in the closet in numerous ways, including but not limited to the sexual. Considering the civil rights activists who have fought for the freedoms we now take for granted, and the freedoms we still do not have, it seems to me that by giving in to the temptation to dissimulate practices which certain bullies in society would have us believe are shameful, we would free-ride, and possibly live on borrowed time, instead of making our own contribution to a better, more tolerant and loving future for all of humanity.

Freedom and the law

Legal norms against widespread practices are routinely subject to a degree of latitude in their implementation. But if, tomorrow, we cannot leave this equilibrium untouched, we will have to legislate more sensibly and with considerably more regard for the facts relative to populist sentiment. Not only legislation, though, will have to change even merely to maintain the status quo: ultimately, it is societal attitudes which will have to become considerably more accommodating if we are not to find the space for freedom and diversity shrinking intolerably and ourselves facing the prospect of a totalitarian control of society which formerly could only be imagined as the grimmest of science fiction.  In any case, the human drive for freedom is very strong and the internet has spawned a whole ethos with which it is now largely identified. It is questionable whether this is reversible, Again, Prometheus is unbound

The internet makes information available and allows us all to grow in our knowledge of the world and of each other. The benefit to all of humanity of this must presumably far outweigh the danger which this same fact poses in relation to persons with malicious intent. In the internet age, every civil rights issue you ever heard of has merged with a host more of which you have not. We are all interdependent and the freedoms of all depend on the freedoms of each. Ultimately, campaigners of all shades have a single message: my right to be me. Society, whether through government or private initiative, has a right to limit self-expression only when there is an overwhelming, objective need to do so – not just out of political expediency in response to populist sentiment. This basic unifying principle must be placed at the heart of democratic institutions and of the law and replace the partial protections of the past – based on sexual orientation, race, gender, disability or religion – with a full protection of the human being as such. It must be constitutionally guaranteed.

The history of religious tolerance gives us a good example, because religion is indisputably (in a free society) a question of personal choice : I can change my religion in a way I cannot change my race, gender or sexual orientation. In fact I personally have done so more than once in my life, and am still not too sure what term to apply. But although religion is not an objective attribute, the protection of religious minorities in fact antedates by far the protection accorded to any of the other categories. This is the consequence of one simple fact: the murderous wars of religion and the eventual realization, first tentatively recognized in 1598 by the Edict of Nantes, that it was only if the mutual right to exist was guaranteed by law that (as Rawls noted) sectarian strife could be brought under control and stable, prosperous societies emerge (“Pour ne laisser aucune occasion de troubles et differendz entre noz subjectz, [nous, i.e. the King] avons permis et permettons à ceulx de ladite Religion pretendue reformée vivre et demourer par toutes les villes et lieux de cestuy nostre royaume et pays de nostre obeïssance sans estre enquis, vexez, molestez ny adstrainctz à faire chose pour le faict de la religion contre leur conscience, ne pour raison d’icelle estre recherchez ez maisons et lieux où ilz voudront habiter“).

Yet although religious rights antedate other minority rights by a substantial margin, it is not very clear – any more – what a religion is. Is there a positive list or can anyone found one? In the latter case, is there a presumption of legality, or a process to become included in the positive list? When religions fracture, do all groups acquire the rights of the parent religion, or do some have to reapply? What rights apply to individuals, and which to the religion as such? Do some religions have a more restrictive set of rights than others? What is a critical set of beliefs (or number of adherents) which sets a “religion” apart from a simple philosophical worldview? And so on. I am sorry if this sounds ill-informed about the jurisprudence on this topic: it certainly is. But the point is that religion, if it ever was a simple matter, is so no longer. The reality is that each of us, today, is free to make up his own religion, and many of us actually do (if you want to try, Daniele Bolelli has even written a “how-to book without instructions“).

In the past, religion involved a choice between a very limited number of options and religions as such could have rights, not just individuals qua members of that religion. Now, many people espouse a religious identity with no audit trail of “membership”, chop and change, may differ widely in beliefs from any sanctioned mainstream dogma, and most religions never had a single voice of authority in the first place. Under these circumstances, religious rights cannot mean what they meant in the past – they must extend to the right to live ones life in any way one personally finds meaningful and which is not demonstrably and significantly dangerous to the rest of society. The rest of society may not like a particular worldview, agree with it or (even more likely) for that matter understand it: if it is my own, ever-changing worldview then the latter is certainly the case (not even I could tell you exactly what it is today but it certainly differs from what it will be tomorrow). But my right to hold it must be at least as sacred as the rights of Quakers, or Baha’i, Sufis or whomever. I should not have to seek sanctuary within any of these groups if I do not wish.


Do you fear the use by governments of the internet in order to gather information on you? Why or why not?

Are you concerned about any possible negative consequences of information you share online, deliberately (via social media for instance) or inadvertently (use of cookies, browser history, multiapp identification systems)?

Have you ever decided not to share something for this reason? Or have you shared and then regretted?

Do you have multiple online identities? If so, why, and how effectively do you think this allows you to keep information private?

Do you trust public institutions to respect privacy and not act outside their mandate? Are there effective mechanisms to prevent mission drift or sanction it if it occurs?

Do you think the internet can ever be effectively policed? If not, does this reassure or worry you?

What limits, if any, do you think there should be to tolerance of differing views on line? Are you worried that an increasingly heterogeneous society will become harder and harder to govern?

How do you think the law and the practice of policing and justice will have to change to keep up with the information society?

What is your view of the Pirate Party and its central beliefs?

How do you imagine the future of the internet: utopia or dystopia?


[1] P.B. Shelley, Prometheus Unbound

[2] These remarks draw on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,



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