My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Privacy is a Privilege

Hey, all of you privacy fanatics, take a look around. Ever stop to wonder why most of you are straight, white and male? It’s kinda obvious if you stop to think about it. Repeat after me: privacy is a privilege. Not a right. Look at the first four letters of those two words: “priv-“. Duh. They come from the same root.

When i saw this comment on one of my posts, i wanted to scream: “Everyone has an absolute right to privacy and marketers have an absolute right to (attempt to) generate revenue with those who step out of their privacy and into the public domain.”

Historically, private space came about with the onset of public space. There is no right to privacy historically or now. Private space is also not guaranteed to be a safe space. Look at issues around domestic abuse. There’s a reason that the law got involved in domestic issues – a woman is not a man’s property in either public or private space and society has a duty to protect her regardless.

Guess what? Just as we have a duty in society to protect people in private space, we have a duty to protect them in public space. We don’t allow people to violate each other when they walk out into the street simply because they chose to step out there. Why should we let institutions do so? What gives marketers some special privilege to determine how people can be psychologically manipulated in society?

The topic at hand has to do with youth. What youth have private space? Sure, your children might have their own bedroom with a lockable door and their own computer. How common do you really think this is? Youth are traditionally a population devoid of any privacy freedoms whatsoever. They have no private space. They move into the public arena to be relieved from the ways in which their parents or school authorities can dictate their mobility and communication. This is not an invitation to manipulation by marketers.

I’m tired of engaging in arguments about privacy with anyone who has not read Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Please read it and after finishing, read Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics. Dammit, if privacy is important to you, read these and then let’s talk. But don’t tell me about the right to privacy until you understand the historical trajectory of privacy and think about how marginalized populations. It’s not so utopian cut and dry; privacy is a privilege that many people in this world would die to have.

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23 comments to Privacy is a Privilege

  • I haven’t read either, but as a woman, I’m really concerned about privacy rights. I’m damn grateful that the right to privacy allows me–as a woman–access to hormonal contraceptives.

  • kris

    danah – I’d love to have the time to take you up on your suggested readings, but…

    OK, I’m a straight, white, male. What that has to do with this discussion I’m at a bit of a loss to understand.

    Of course privacy is a privelege. It’s a privilege a lot of people did die for to make a Right. And it is a Right that people do and will continue to fight for to ensure it stays a right.
    IMO, the biggest threat to this and any other rights/pivileges we enjoy is apathy – a trait you and I both know is in abundant supply.

    Listen, I’m a recovering Republican – still pretty conservative, socially liberal in some areas, and pretty Libertarian in a lot of ways (but not all) and I am scared silly at the way politicians of all persuasions are acting in ways that will compromise many of the hard-fought rights that we are all privileged to have.

    Like you, I cringe at a lot of opinions, but I absolutely live for the tangible, pithy insights that come out of discussions like the one you started over at Many2Many and I commented upon.

    Actually, when I look back at your comment above, I’m not sure where you think I stand, but I’m not as extreme as your comment indicates – I don’t think my comments equate to accepting violence in public and domestic violence in the privacy of one’s home.

    Just as there are zoning laws to govern what can and can not be built in various areas, there are governance laws for marketers and everyone else that, at the end of the day, serve to ensure our individual Rights -including privacy.

    Hopefully, you read the last comment I left over at Many2Many. I’ve been frustrated lately at the lack of posting/commentary over there and I’m just happy to see some engaging discussion like this one 😉

  • Let me begin by explaining the gender comment. It is not that marginalized populations do not benefit from privacy and that they don’t appreciate them, it is simply that they are not the ones with the privilege to assert the right and engage in the debates. If you go to any privacy conference (digital or otherwise), join any group fighting or privacy issues or otherwise engage in the debate, you will find that the group engaged is awfully homogeneous. Because they have the privilege to engage in those discussions. The problem is that they’re not fighting for the needs or issues of the marginalized – they are simply fighting for their structure of privacy, their view of what’s right. This is why Warner following Habermas is sooo important.

    Kris – i’m sorry but you may think it’s a right that someone died for, but it’s not. If it were such a right, it wouldn’t be eroded through every act of Congress. If it were a right, youth and poor folks would have privacy. Sooo many populations have no privacy. That makes it a privilege. A privilege that you conceptualize as a right, no doubt, but a privilege nonetheless.

    I also think you misunderstand apathy. Perceived apathy comes from powerlessness. Powerlessness for change. Yeah, i know they tell us all in civics classes that one vote counts, that our voices matter. But i also know that folks fight on the streets for the turf that matters, for the honor and respect that they need to survive. I know that working class moms work 14 hours and then come home to take care of kids, strung out at both ends. When survival is key, no one cares what’s going on in Washington. That’s not apathy. Add the perpetual culture of fear on top of it and you have the most aggressively controlling power structure possible. It’s not a matter of apathy, it’s an issue of how power was organized. It’s why joblessness is a problem for the Republicans. You need everyone to be poor, exhausted and just trying to survive. If they are out of work, they have time and anger to fight back.

  • Since I’m ever the nitpicker, from here, privilege comes from the Latin “privus” meaning individual (combined with “lex/legis,” meaning law), and private comes from the Latin “privatus” meaning “belonging to oneself” in contrast to “publicus.” If there’s a common root, it has to do with self, not the more complicated concept of privilege.

    danah boyd: privacy is a privilege that many people in this world would die to have.

    Well, so is the “right” of free speech. As a libertarian, I think the Bill of Rights were created, not because these rights had historical roots, but to purposefully limit the powers of government because the Founders were clearly aware and fearful that power corrupts. Privacy was not one that they had specifically thought of, but I think that has more to do with failure to project the future of information-gathering technology than anything else.

    Still doesn’t argue for all rights being applied to children (they don’t have the right to vote either), but I just have to disagree with the notion of privacy as a privilege.

  • kris

    danah – ya know, I think we’re saying the same thing but with some semantical/philosophical differences. You seem to come from a more utopian, socislistic perspective and I think I’m more libertarian (or Keynsian, or something).

    In any event, whether ‘Right’ or ‘Privilege’, it is always at risk, constantly being eroded, and constantly being reinforced. And (back to may original point, way back when), technology is a fascinating facilitator of that process.

    Looking forward to some future discussion.
    K

  • Brad

    Really, your whole posting is so completely inaccurate and full of holes, assumptions, and downright inaccuracies that I don’t have the time or inclination to tear it apart bit by bit (although I’m happy to see others are)… instead I just wanted to point out that privacy is indeed a fundamental human right, protected as such by the United Nations and declared in the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.

    Further though, it should be pointed out that all people – including yourself – have a basic expectation for personal privacy. I’m sure that you have drapes in your home and you probably close them at night. Do you do this because you are committing a crime? Abusing your spouse? Or, maybe because you are a “straight white male”? (although I can’t fathom what that has to do with this discussion at all) No. You do it because you have a natural instinct to keep some parts of your life private and, so long as you are not infringing on the rights of others, you should be allowed that right. Its no coincidence that when individuals are convicted of crimes in our society the main freedom they lose is their right to privacy. Do you really want everyone to be treated as a criminal?

    It has been said that privacy is the right from which all other rights flow. You should carefully consider this before recommending the dismantling of privacy in our society.

  • kris

    Ummm, I’m not sure who you’re directing the diatribe at, Brad, but while danah and I are surely at different ends of the political and social spectrum, I think we both agree on the fundamental importance of privacy.

    I assume you’re directing at me since I’m the SWM, but I also said I didn’t see the relevance.

    The discussion was about whether or not privacy is a privilege or a right – I felt it is a natural Right, as did our Founding Fathers (sorry about the gender reference, but that’s what they were).

    In fact, you may wnt to go back to Many2Many at Corante to see the full sequence of comments (I came on a bit strong, but it was worth the ensuing discusion).

    Jeez!

  • I guess it’s semantics, but I still take issue with labeling privacy as a privilege just because the government denies it to a class of people. To me privilege connotes something that the government lets you have, but isn’t something you’re entitled to have, like being able to drive a car. This is not the same thing as something you have a right to have, but are denied it by a repressive government, like free speech in Zimbabwe.

    I think it’s very dangerous to start considering privacy as something that government merely allows us to have, instead of something that we have a right to have, but can still be taken away by governments that overstep their authority. For a better parallel than free speech, we are supposedly entitled to the right of a fair trial, but in reality it’s just the rich people who can afford good lawyers. But I don’t think this means we should characterize fair trials as a privilege, which, to me, implies that this is just the way things are. I think it’s more constructive to view this as an injustice and a case where rights are being denied.

    Again, this is all separate from the notion of whether children should be accorded the same rights as adults.

  • hi, i blog-stalk you once in a while, and i just wanted to say rock on for this post especially. why is it that a group of mostly straight white men that are advocating for something get all defensive when you point out that they are mostly straight white men? and why is it then a crime to extrapolate that hm, maybe what they are pushing for mainly, or disproportionately, benefits them. what would be so wrong with them examining their own privilege and placing themselves within a larger context of oppression?

  • My point is that using the term privilege in regards to privacy is more likely to allow the oppression to continue (“poor people haven’t earned or don’t deserve this privilege”) rather than flagging it as an injustice (“poor people are being denied their rights”).

    I am not white, by the way.

  • Because when you talk about it as a right, you assume that it can be institutionalized and regulated externally. You tell me how the law can give youth privacy from their parents. In fact, uniformly, that has NEVER happened.

    Privacy is a privilege based on your position in society, based on the power that others hold over you. Consenting to anything requires equal footing and guess what? There are huge power differentials in society. Kids aren’t consenting to having their privacy taken away – they are at the mercy of adults who hold power over them.

    Legal structures were built into place to limit the amount of power that a government could hold over a people but they do not eliminate other power relations. And the issue of privacy is not a legal one, but a social one. Until you resolve the power issues in society, you cannot have equal access to privacy.

  • zephoria: And the issue of privacy is not a legal one, but a social one. Until you resolve the power issues in society, you cannot have equal access to privacy.

    If you want to look at it that way, then there are no rights. Rich people have access to television advertising, and so have more free speech than poor people. Ditto for lawyers, guns, ability to bribe, etc. etc.

    As I’ve said, you can still call privacy a right while recognizing that there are power issues resulting in unequal access to those rights, and highlight this inequality as something to be addressed. And indeed, I believe this is better than labeling rights as privileges, because people just don’t have the same moral outrage over denial of privileges.

  • Of course they have moral outrage because it signifies that not everyone is socially equal. It signifies the power relations that are real. Freedom of speech is a legal right with legal limitations and mechanisms for enforcement. Privacy is not. Privacy is a privilege, caught up in issues of power. Power is the key issue here.

  • i often feel that freedom of speech is also similarly tied to power/privilege, because it’s so much easier to get your word out if you have more money and social capital. it just upsets me greatly when liberals label larry flynt or howard stern free speech heroes, without bothering to hear out the non-conservative, non-religious, feminist critics of their misogyny.

  • kris

    danah – a final thought (I keep re-reading your post just to make sure I understand where you are coming from and I keep seeing things I didn’t see before)….

    you wrote: “…Just as we have a duty in society to protect people in private space, we have a duty to protect them in public space. We don’t allow people to violate each other when they walk out into the street simply because they chose to step out there. Why should we let institutions do so? What gives marketers some special privilege to determine how people can be psychologically manipulated in society?”

    Aren’t you flirting with freedom of speech here? This is another Right we are Prvileged to have in this country that a lot of people have died for.

    Rather than berating the evil forces out there for doing what they do to ‘psychologically manipulate’ all the poor, unsuspecting, marginalized groups in the population, why don’t we teach individuals in these groups to recognize when they are being manipulated and how to defend themselves against it?

    You know, ‘Accountability’ and that ‘give a person a fish or teach a person to fish’ thing 🙂

    A couple parting thoughts to your contributors who made this a really interesting foray into a new corner of the blogosphere’ for me…

    fling93 – well-stated points from a guy with something other than the usual SWM POV – especially the ‘youth’ comments. You’re right, of course.

    Abby – a bit self-absorbe, dontcha think?

    Brad – if you’re gonna rip on someone else’s comments, know the premise before you spout off

    leena – same as Brad. Also, you may want to get out a bit more – you know, with people who don’t use 50-cent words like ‘mysogyny’ in their everyday conversation. Do some volunteer work and rub elbows with the real world.

    Freedom of speech has nothing to do with the size of your audience. It has everything to do with your right to say anything you want short of ‘Fire!’ in a theater without any retribution (other than the rolling of eyes from others when they hear you say it – trust me on this one – I’m causing all kinds of eye rolling right now).

    The credibility of what it is you are saying will determine how large an audience you attract.

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    ライバシーは特権なのかというあたりについてのブログ上での議論…

  • Private and privilege are related, but not in the way you think.

    “Private” is derived from the Middle English word “privat”, which is derived from the latin “privus”, which means “not in public life”.

    “Privilege” is from a latin compound word: “privus” (private) + “leg” (law). It literally means “private law”.

  • Kris – why? Because that’s a masculinist approach – arm everyone to fight, keep aggression going and expect people to defend themselves under a constant barrage of attacks. No thank you. That is not the society in which i want to live nor one i could support. And to blame victims of cognitive manipulation, telling them to just get tougher, that’s again a privileged stance.

  • kris

    danah – if you keep treating people like victims, they stay victims.

    I disagree completely about this so-called ‘masculinist’ approach. Why is everything a passive-aggressive dichotomy with you? It’s not like I believe people should just ‘be a man’ about it. I believe strongly (and have plenty of volunteer hours to support that) that a helping hand should be offered, but offered in such a way that helps peole become self-sufficient, and not eternally dependent. I have faith in the human spirit, no matter what marginilazed group that human belongs to.

  • I agree that the approach to support is to teach people how to help themselves, but that’s not the right approach when they’re always under attack. The attacks need to stop too.

  • Brad

    Kris – my comments were not directed at you. I was commenting on the original posting, sorry, I thought that was obvious.

  • Dai Laffin

    I’ve heard this somewhere:-

    “in some countries everything is permitted except that which is denied by law whilst in other countries everything is forbidden except that permitted by law”.

    Don’t know if that helps

  • we all must have fully protected privacy! it’s not a privilege it’s a right of all people on earth, i think. if we indulgence somebody to know about us information we need hide (our conversations, etc.) – privacy really becomes privilege.