July 19, 2014
One year on from the Snowden revelations and the global privacy debate is by no means settled. FB announced it will be exercising its rights to sell users’ data to third party advertisers, Russia signed an act banning the export of all its personal data abroad and Google is portraying the ECJ ruling on the right to be forgotten not as a right to privacy but as an infringement on freedom of expression. As far as privacy is concerned the field is still wide open and it’s all to play for as governments, tech-companies and the EU square up for a show-down in the months and year to come.
Dave Eggers’ much hyped novel, The Circle, from a literary point of view is a flop. Set in an imaginary tech-campus modelled on Googleplex in California the characters have about as much charisma and fluidity as two-dimensional card-board cut-outs. The message is at times over-flagged to the point of tedium. The relationship between the protagonist and her “love interest” as implausible and artificial as the artificial intelligence the giant tech company “The Circle” is at the forefront of developing. A missed opportunity. Had Eggers’ characters and plot been that bit more nuanced this could have been a brilliant book and possibly, one day, a classic.
For what Eggers’ lacks in literary style he makes up for in vision. Like Orwell, Eggers’ has an uncanny ability to identify the threat and coin it in a slogan. Thus, the founding philosophy of the three Circle founders reads as follows:
SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT.
When George Orwell conceived 1984 in 1948 Big Brother is portrayed as an ever present, all watching, insidious State from which individuals can never escape. Eggers’ fictional “The Circle” on the other hand is based on a cheerful “Little Brother” (i.e. a huge commercial tech company with billions of subscribers harvesting user data to sell on to third parties) that slowly but insidiously invades our personal lives. Like Big Brother Little Brother is ever present, all watching and impossible to shake off. The contrast between big brother and little brother is one of perception. Whilst big brother is sinister from the word go, little brother appears to be a more benevolent, well intentioned, harmless invader of our privacy.
This is where fiction and real life over-lap in unsettling detail. Modern populations are more than willing and happy to subscribe, by the millions and billions to apps and social networking sites, hardly viewing them as sinister or malevolent. In any case do the CEO’s of on-line service providers look like ominous, totalitarian dictators? Hardly. Steve Jobs gave inspiring TED talks that made millions want to weep. Zuckerberg? C’mon hardly a Blofeld plotting world destruction from a mountain top. Just a regular nerd in a hoodie. Sergei Brin – looks like a nice clever chap with a strange obsession for glasses and extreme sports. Nothing wrong with that.
Just as the three fictional founders of The Circle reinvest their billions into new on-line tools to solve the world’s evils so too do the larger than life Jobs, Zuckerberg and Brin. They too use their immense wealth and patented technology to devise on-line tools which they claim will be able to eliminate, in no particular order: crime, corruption, fraud, world hunger, poverty, child abuse, violence, disease. Identify the global challenge and Palo Alto (aka The Circle) is ready to step in and solve the problem through innovation and technology. Money is not an obstacle to their ambitions. Privacy, on the other hand, is. For their business ambitions to succeed three crucial factors must be set in stone.
First, complete transparency which is why the message secrets are lies must be promoted. Second, all registered users must keep on posting everyday events hence sharing is caring. Third, there is nothing in our private lives to be ashamed of unless we have a criminal past or criminal desires which is why privacy is theft and not a right.
Eggers’ novel portrays a not too distant future, where monopolistic, dominant tech-companies control each and every aspect of our everyday lives by tagging us with impunity on-line. A future, which many European regulators and civic privacy groups consider no longer fiction but reality. Continental Europe, more than any other global region, is pushing for a regulatory agenda to find a balance between the obvious benefits of on-line technology on the one hand and citizens’ expectations of their right to a private life on the other.
Let us then, take each of The Circle’s slogans and dissect them, one by one, in order to determine whether, from an EU perspective, there is anything to fear from the increasing influence of global tech companies on our everyday lives. Are their business practices well intentioned signalling more jobs and a better future for us and generations to come? Or could their business practices have a less obvious, though no less problematic down side? If yes, can European regulation square The Circle and bring it back into line with human rights law?
The first section will consider the assumption that “secrets are lies” and contrast it to the EU’s “right to be forgotten”. The second section will consider the idea that “sharing is caring” and contrast it with European citizens’ squeamishness with sharing their private lives with unknown third parties . The third section, “privacy is theft” considers whether our personal data is a proprietary right or, as the EU sees it, a human right.