Privacy, Publicness, and the Web: A Manifesto

As Google, Facebook, and other companies exploit our data trails to help us connect and communicate, we the people need to establish some basic rights

Illustration: Steve McAlister/Getty Images

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report on the battle for the future of the social Web.

The internet is the greatest agent of change since at least Gutenberg. Its leaders, Google and Facebook, are transforming business, society, our relationships, and even our worldview in so many ways. They're also transforming our notions of privacy and publicness. Will this new world be a better one?

Facebook and Google—and I—believe a public society is a better society. "On balance, making the world more open is good," Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, told me. "Our mission is to make the world more open and connected." And Google's is to organize the world's public knowledge.

Many benefits accrue to a public society. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, has been calling for opening up as much data as possible—save for that which jeopardizes privacy—to move the Web to its next phase. Because when data are layered upon data and connections are made, value can grow dramatically.

Google demands openness if we want to be found online. Facebook enables—indeed, encourages and presses for—transparency in our relationships and identities. After acknowledging the irony that both of these organizations operate somewhat opaquely, we must recognize that we are entering an era of openness that will affect how business and government work and how they interact with their constituents.

In my research, I've found that worries about privacy are often triggered by the changes that new technology brings. After Gutenberg's press, the earliest book authors feared making their ideas public and permanent. In the United States, the first serious discussion of a right to privacy came in 1890. The trigger: the invention of the Kodak camera, tied to the emergence of popular newspapers known as the penny press. The telephone, miniature microphones, video cameras, and RFID chips all raised similar worries. Now it's the Internet's turn.

Zuckerberg believes Facebook is the Web's next phase after Google. According to his history, before the Internet, many of us suffered "privacy through obscurity," but now the democratizing Web gives us all the opportunity to share and publish, to be both consumer and producer. "If everyone shares a little bit of information, then you can compile these massive sets of knowledge—whether it's a better way of doing news or a better encyclopedia," he said. That's what the Internet, search, and content tools give us.

But Facebook and Google are still just companies. As Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt said in the midst of his company's battle of wills with China—a battle over censored searches and possible attacks on Google servers by Chinese hackers—Google is not a nation and does not have a police force or diplomats. Nonetheless, it was Google that represented the rights, security, and principles of the Net to Chinese bureaucrats and hackers. Google was the new world's ambassador to the old world because somebody had to be.

And that was fine until Google also took it upon itself to negotiate "network neutrality"—the concept that all data traffic should be treated equally—with Verizon Communications, resulting in a proposal, presented to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, that sacrificed Net neutrality in mobile connectivity to secure it in the wired Internet. I lament that proposal and the fact that it was made without us—Internet users—at the table. But again, Google is just a company, acting in its own interests. And so is Facebook, which has repeatedly faced questions about its own motives and interests versus those of its users in matters of privacy.

We, the people of the Net, need a set of principles for our new world. We need something to point to when governments censor the Web or try to control it, and when companies create new products or behave badly.

I don't yet have the right set of principles. But I present a conversation starter for the discussion I believe we must have:

  1. We have the right to connect.
  2. We have the right to speak.
  3. We have the right to assemble and to act.
  4. Privacy is an ethic of knowing.
  5. Publicness is an ethic of sharing.
  6. Our institutions' information should be public by default, secret by necessity.
  7. What is public is a public good.
  8. All bits are created equal.
  9. The Internet must stay open and distributed.

That's very much a beta version of this needed declaration—incomplete and imperfect and already oft revised. We need to consider these larger questions about the architecture and the consequences of our choices—not only for each of us, individually, but most important for the Net as a whole. What principles should inform our choices? What should privacy and publicness mean in the future? Join the discussion in the comments section below.

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report on the battle for the future of the social Web.

About the Author

Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do? (HarperCollins, 2009), blogs about media and news at Buzzmachine.com. He is an associate professor and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. His new book, Public Parts, will be published by Simon & Schuster this fall.

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