John Keane | Power and Privacy in the Age of Monitory Democracy
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Power and Privacy in the Age of Monitory Democracy

  |   Democracy Field Notes, Democracy in the 21st Century, News   |   No comment

In our age of monitory democracy, as Rupert Murdoch is once again learning to his cost, rascals and rogues are finding it hard to conceal from public attention their private wheeler-dealing.

The latest ‘we will hit back’ revelations published by the pay-walled investigative British website Exaronews show with spectacular clarity that we live in times when publicity rains down hard on all things private and personal. The realm that used to be called ‘private’ becomes publicly contested. Privacy battles are constantly fought, lost and won. Awash in vast oceans of circulating information that is portable and easily reproduced and distributed, anxiety about privacy becomes commonplace. Not even the powerful, whose preferred drug is secrecy, are any longer safe behind closed doors.Whatever is thought of the whole process, the rough riding or ‘outing’ of private life ensures not only that the public-private boundary is the source of constant legal, political and ethical disputes. Controversies about the private arguably have a long-term positive effect: they teach citizens that the personal is political, that the realm of the private, once hidden away from the eyes and ears of others but still said by many to be necessary for getting risky and dodgy things done in life, is embedded in fields of power in which villains take refuge and injustices result.

One thing is certain: gone are the days when privacy could be regarded as ‘natural’, as a given bedrock or sub-stratum of taken-for-granted experiences and meanings. More than a generation ago, the Moravian philosopher Edmund Husserlthought in that way about the ‘world of everyday life’ (Lebenswelt). He proposed that daily interactions among people are typically habitual. Everyday life has a definite ‘a priori’ quality, he said. It is social interaction guided by acts of empathy among people who believe and expect others to behave more or less like themselves. This inter-subjectivity is structured by unquestioned presumptions of mutual familiarity. Actors suppose a ‘natural attitude’ to themselves and to the world about them; they interact on a bedrock of taken-for-granted beliefs that their own ways of seeing and doing things is ‘naturally’ shared by others.

This way of thinking about the everyday world is now obsolete. Those who still think in terms of everyday life as a barrier against the outside world, perhaps even as a safe and secluded haven of freedom in a world dominated by large-scale, powerful institutions, are out of touch. The reality is that everyday life is no longer a substratum of taken for granted things and people. In the age of monitory democracy, for instance, users of the Internet find their personal data is the engine fuel of a booming web-based market economy; traditional methods of matching advertising to the content of people’s interests is rapidly giving way to a world structured by digital ‘cookies’, small pieces of software installed on personal computers. This software functions as unique identifiers of what users are looking at. It stores the tracked information, so building up a picture of the demographics and interests of users that are of high market value to companies such as Facebook and Google, and to their advertising clients. The ‘de-siloing’ (as those companies say) of personal data allows advertisers to track users with precision. A class-action lawsuitsettled out of court by Facebook revealed that even the ‘likes’ posted by its users can be deployed as ‘sponsored stories’ (advertisements) for marketing purposes.

Such tactics are part of a deepening trend in which no private matter or intimate topic is left unmediated, that is, cordoned off from media coverage. The more ‘private’ experiences are, the more ‘publicity’ they seem to get, especially when what’s at stake are matters of taste and consumption, sex and violence, birth and death, personal hopes, fears, skulduggery and tragedy.

In today’s media-saturated societies, private life is losing its privacy. Government agencies install ‘black box’ surveillance devices within Internet traffic. Digital identities of individuals are mined and tracked by companies. Personal data is big business. Techniques of ‘data capture’ develop traction. We live in a surveillance economy, in which companies known as data brokers, also called information re-sellers, gather and then market to other companies, including advertisers, hundreds or thousands of details about the consumption patterns, racial or ethnic identity, health concerns, social networks and financial arrangements of most individuals who go online.

Cheap and user-friendly methods of reproduction and access to portable networked tools of communication meanwhile ensure that we live in the age of hyper-coverage. Everything that happens in the fields of power stretching from the bedroom and bathroom to the boardroom to the battlefield seems to be up for media grabs. With the flick of a switch or the click of a camera button, the world of the private is suddenly public. Unmediated privacy has become a thing of the past.

These are times in which the private lives of celebrities – their romances, parties, health, quarrels, and divorces – are the interest and fantasy objects of millions of people. There is, thanks to genres such as Twitter, television talk shows and talk-back radio, an endless procession of ‘ordinary people’ talking publicly about what privately turns them on, or off. We live in times when millions of people feel free to talk publicly about their private fears, fantasies, hopes and expectations, and to act as if they are celebrities by displaying details of their intimate selves on Facebook.

We live in an age when things done in ‘private’ are big public stories. It is the era (say) in which so-called reality-TV cuts from a scheduled afternoon programme to an armed and angry man; holding a hostage, he turns his shotgun on himself, or fires at the police, live, courtesy of a news helicopter, or outside broadcasting unit. There are moments when citizens themselves take things into their own hands, as when a woman spits racist comments at other passengers on a packed London tram, the incident is filmed and posted online, then after sparking a Twitter trend goes viral, attracting ten million viewers within a week. These are times in which things that were once kept quiet, for instance the abuse of children by priests of the Roman Catholic Church, are publicly exposed by newspapers and other media, with the help of the abused, who manage to unearth details of their molesters, sometimes quite by accident, thanks to the new tools of communication. And we live in an age when video footage proves that soldiers in war zones robbed innocent civilians of their lives, tortured prisoners, raped women and traumatised children.

The de-privatisation and democratisation of daily life is of course a heavily contested process. In the era of monitory democracy, political objections to the destruction of privacy flourish. Some observers argue, extending and upending an eighteenth-century simile, that media coverage robs citizens of their identities, that it resembles not a goddess of liberty, but a succubus, a female demon supposed to rape sleeping men and collect and pass on their sperm to other women. Switching similes, some critics denounce the mounting pressures to expose the secrets of the private as ‘totalitarian’. ‘For me,’ wrote the French philosopherJacques Derrida, ‘the demand that everything be paraded in the public square and that there be no internal forum is a glaring sign of the totalitarianization of democracy’.

Still other critics denounce the killer instincts of high-pressure media coverage of the private. Famously spelled out by Janet Malcolm in The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), the accusation of media murder is sometimes literally the leitmotif of media events, as when intense publicity tracked the death of Princess Diana following a high-speed car chase by journalists dubbed paparazzi. Still other critics, sensing that a private life is vital for cultivating a sound sense of self, deliberately refuse to send tweets, to purchase a smart phone, or to use e-mail.

Running in the same direction are calls for journalists to respect others’ privacy, to raise their ethical standards and to exercise moral self-restraint as defined by established codes of conduct. There are challenges to spam and other types of invasive messages; data vault schemes (offered by companies such that allow individuals, for a price, to store and manage their private data. And there are legal cases that aim to prevent journalists from unlimited digging and fishing expeditions, as in the controversies surrounding the unfinished Murdoch press ‘hacking’ scandal and the major (but unsuccessful) appeal brought before the European Court of Human Rights by Max Mosley, against the British newspaper News of the World for its headline story that he had engaged in a ‘sick Nazi orgy with five hookers’.

The court’s judgement makes for interesting reading. It recognised the fundamental importance of situations where ‘information at stake is of a private and intimate nature and there is no public interest in its dissemination’. It noted as well that ‘the private lives of those in the public eye have become a highly lucrative commodity for certain sectors of the media’. The court nevertheless warned of the ‘chilling effect’ of pre-notification requirements and reaffirmed the principle, which it applied to this particular case, that the ‘publication of news’ about persons holding public office ‘contributes to the variety of information available to the public’. It concluded with a reminder of the ‘limited scope’ for applying ‘restrictions on the freedom of the press to publish material which contributes to debate on matters of general public interest’.

Some critics of de-privatisation meanwhile call publicly for the legal right of citizens to delete all present-day traces of their past ‘private’ communications with others. According to Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and others, digital communications technologies are double-edged sharp swords: while individuals find themselves taking full advantage of communicative abundance, their lives, it is said, are potentially harmed by digitisation, cheap storage, easy retrieval, global access, and increasingly powerful software. Together, these forces conspire to increase the dangers of everlasting digital memory of our private lives, for instance outdated information taken out of context, or compromising photos or messages accessed by employers, or political foes.

According to these champions of privacy, whereas the invention of writing enabled humans to remember across generations and vast swathes of time, media saturation does something altogether different. It potentially threatens our individual and collective capacity to forget things that need to be forgotten. The past becomes ever present, ready to be recalled at the flick of a switch, or the click of a mouse. The trouble with digital systems, runs this line of criticism, is not only that they remember things that are sometimes better forgotten. It is that they hinder our ability to make sound decisions unencumbered by the past.

Meanwhile, acting on that point, a new generation of technically savvy privacy activists associated with networked bodies like Privacy International and the Open Rights Group has launched various public campaigns. They champion the stricter application of expiration dates and the development of privacy-enhancing technologies (so-called PETs). They agitate against publicly available geospatial information about private dwellings, government initiatives to regulate access to strong cryptography, the corporate abuse of consumer databases and unregulated wiretapping and hacking powers of media organisations.

What are we to make of all these developments centred on the ‘right to privacy’? Most obviously, they underscore the contingency and deep ambiguity of the private-public distinction. Think of the way this old distinction was defended, philosophically speaking, as a sacrosanct First Principle by nineteenth-century liberal thinkers such as the English political writer and parliamentarian John Stuart Mill and Germany’s greatest philosopher of liberty, Wilhelm von Humboldt.

Their insistence that there are clear distinctions to be drawn between ‘the private’ (conceived as the sphere of self-regarding actions) and ‘the public’ (the sphere of other-affecting actions) no longer rings true. In the age of communicative abundance, privacy, defined as the ability of individuals to control how much of themselves they reveal to others, their ‘right to be let alone’, is seen as a complicated and publicly contestable right. Citizens are encouraged to think more flexibly and contextually about the public and the private.

Disputes about privacy and its ‘invasion’ have another long-term political significance. They underscore not only growing public awareness of the contingent and reversible character of the public-private distinction, which is to say that the distinction is no longer readily seen, as it was seen by many 19th and 20th century European liberals, as either a binary opposite set in stone or as having a divine, mysterious validity. Thanks to monitory democracy and the communications revolution of our time, the private-public distinction is regarded as a precious but ambiguous legacy from former times.

Citizens come to see that some things are definitely worth keeping private. They learn there are times when privacy – ensuring that certain matters are nobody else’s business, that individuals and groups should not freely witness or comment upon their actions – is a precious inheritance. That is why they favour keeping certain areas of social and political life ‘private’, for instance through efforts by journalists to protect the identity of their sources, or through campaigns against governments’ use of closed-circuit TV cameras and other forms of surveillance.

The sphere of ‘the private’ is seen not only as a fragile ‘temporary resting place’ (Richard Rorty) that usefully serves as a citizens’ refuge from interference by others. There is growing awareness that the private also functions as a refuge for scoundrels. Citizens learn to accept that there are times when embarrassing publicity given to ‘private’ wrongdoings is entirely justified. Outing the powerful is necessary, especially when citizens are confronted by mendacious politicians, or by would-be rulers (like Berlusconi) desperate to confirm that they are men, or by dangerous media barons whose concocted innocence in public is contradicted by leaked evidence that behind closed doors they display not a drop of contrition for the injustice they’ve dumped on others.

Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, News Corporation, 2009 World Economic Forum

Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, News Corporation, 2009 World Economic Forum


-> Originally published in The Conversation,  July 5, 2013