Web 2.0 and the surveillance society

January 8, 2008

This post brings together a number of themes that I have been thinking about recently. It was prompted by Privacy International‘s recent report on Leading surveillance societies in the EU and the World 2007. In it, the organisation gave Britain a damning write-up, stating that Britain is an “endemic surveillance society”, on a par with China, Russia, and the USA in its lack respect for individual privacy. This came as something of a surprise to me, even though I keep up with data protection and privacy law to a certain extent, and that it’s fairly well known in these circles that Britain has the most comprehensive CCTV network of any nation on earth. I assumed that the UK’s democratic process was robust enough to cope with these challenges, but apparently this shouldn’t be taken for granted.

So far, so depressing, but what might this have to do with the giddy world of Web 2.0? Well, it occurred to me during one of the sessions during day 3 of Online Information conference (on the future of web 2.0) that web 2.0 actually allows us, and perhaps even forces us, into colluding with this surveillance or even into surveying ourselves. I’m not making any great claims for the originality of this thought (see for example ideas on “digital Maoism”), but there did seem to me to be a useful way of thinking about the effects of certain web 2.0 services, and in particular social networks such as Facebook or Bebo.

This is to consider the way in which Facebook and the like ask us to display a public persona, and the way in which we then regulate this persona. It occurred to me that, in this way, social networks become a Foucauldian Panopticon, in which behaviour is subject to regimes of discipline that determine and condition the ways in which we act. In this way, the personal not only becomes the political, but also the public- everything is “on show”. To put it another way, you had better not let your boss/ teacher/ lecturer/ mum know what you got up to at the weekend via those pictures posted on Facebook, or else.

One of the speakers at the conference above mentioned the interesting idea of “declarative living” as a remedy to this problem, or that apart from very personal matters, you should be willing to put information about yourself online, and then let others use this data as long as this data use is acceptable. This is an interesting idea, but also seems to me to be willing participation in the very surveillance society which we might otherwise object to, for example in the case of Britain’s CCTV network mentioned above.

Does all this actually matter, or am I just going on about some fairly dry theoretical issues with little real-world relevance? I would argue that this stuff does matter, and that these issues are thrown into sharp relief by events such as the recent Facebook Beacon debacle. Essentially, organisations like Facebook and Google make their money out of information about our lives, through advertising, data mining, selling demographic information and the like- should we then be so forthcoming with this information? And if we accept that we can give away our personal information in exchange for the undoubted benefits of social networking, should we be declarative, or should we be differentiating between our web personas and (as it were) real life?

Anyway, enough rambling, I hope this post is at least semi-coherent, and I’d be very interested to hear what people think about all this, I think it’s a very interesting topic.

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11 Responses to “Web 2.0 and the surveillance society”

  1. Doctor Drone Says:

    You are ignoring the good work Google does in monetizing (for themselves) copyrighted material where the copyright is usually not asserted, e.g., Google Groups. You are also ignoring, among other things, Google’s ability to exploit the common man’s desire to spy on his neighbors with just a few keystrokes. Oftentmes, Google invades privacy with the innocent words “Who us, we’re just an information location tool.” They don’t have to turn materials over to the government to be evil.

  2. neilstewart Says:

    Not ignoring, so much as not covering! Interesting points though. I don’t buy Google’s “do no evil” schtick either, but nor do I think that they are unambiguously bad. And Google might come back with arguments about allowing access to the “long tail” for your first point, or that the medium isn’t intent for the second- if someone is determined to spy on someone else, they are likely to do so with or without Google’s help.

  3. Doctor Drone Says:

    You call it the long tail. I think of it like the bank embezzler who modified the computer program at the bank to deposit all the round down differences into his account.

    Google doesn’t invade privay, of course, they don’t snoop, it’s people do. I’ve heard that argument.

    Google is an assault rifle in the hands of a nation of snoops.

  4. neilstewart Says:

    You’ll note that I didn’t say I necessarily subscribe to those arguments, and only said they could be made. Not sure that the weapon analogy holds either- what does this Google gun use as ammunition?

  5. Doctor Drone Says:

    Was that a rhetorical question or do you prefer living in a small town of 300 good people who all know whether you’re “regular”.

  6. neilstewart Says:

    Hey, no need to get all ad hominem, I was only joking! Look, as I’ve said above (and elsewhere, for what that’s worth) Google is not unproblematic, but to say that it’s straightforwardly bad is a pretty naive position to take, I think.

  7. Doctor Drone Says:

    Not actually /ad hominem/ re yourself. All of us are “irregular” in one way or another. The /ad hominem/ has to do with the Google audience of amateur snoops.

    Look, Google claims to be providing an “inforfmation location service.” In the language of Keanu Reeves, that’s just bogus. They are free-riding (see the lexicon of Economics) off of wide-scale copyright infringement, defamation, and invasion of privacy.

    I don’t think they should have a right to make money as an intermediary when copyright is infringed. I don’t think they have a right to make money when one ordinary person defames another, and I don’t think they have a right to make money from compiling a public dossier on every citizen and resident of the Republic.

    Not to mention their role in the dissemination of pornography. Porn is not free speech, and there’s no vald 1st Amendment argument in favor of porn except the slippery slope (1st they came for the pornographers, and now they’re comng for me). That’s not supposed to be a proper argument in law, but it’s often applied in 1st Amendment decisions.

    Much has changed over the last few years as Google has enlarged its indexes to include almost all the world’s information. This was previously a minor concern. But Google has no choice in its effort to maintain market share but to persuade its customers (the advertisers) that Internet users will turn to Google first when they search for information. Oftentmes, that means that the user expects he can get all the unpleasant detail about you from within Google.

    Got it?

  8. neilstewart Says:

    1) I’m not an American citizen or expert in US law, so am not really qualified to talk about the US constitution.

    2) I’ve not once argued to the contrary with regard to anything you’ve said about Google. In fact, I’m in agreement to a certain extent. The fact remains that my original post wasn’t about Google per se. While you’re certainly entitled to your opinions about Google, and you make some interesting arguments, you’re not actually engaging with what I said, and are essentially using my blog to air your views.

    3) Can it with the chippy tone, there’s no need!

  9. neilstewart Says:

    Just a note to say that Dr D sent me a very nice email, contextualising some of what was written above, and noting that he/ she was commenting that Google is the central focus of web 2.0, and hence is worthy of examination in a similar light to that of my initial post. The Dr also raised the point that the legal regimes in the US and EU are very different- we in the EU are lucky enough to have legislative protection that is absent in the US.

    I should note that, on my part, that last comment was not intended to shut down debate, as it might be construed!

    Anyone else out there with something to contribute?

  10. Tom A Says:

    Hey Neil,

    Look at you talking about privacy and putting your surname all over the place! I’m not called Tom A when I’m online for nothing.

    Really interesting blog post. I remember reading about the different uses to which CCTV can be put in some research exploring its positive role in some inner city areas allowing citizens to take action against crippling crime.

    On the other hand, I recall a conversation recently with my father, who was horrified that I’m on Facebook, displaying my life for all the world to see. It’s different for him, as his secretive job depends on him being able to operate under the radar.

    For myself, there isn’t really anything I need to hide in a superficial sense. And we do live in a fairly robust democracy. And were a fascist government to come to power tomorrow, I’m not sure the CCTV cameras and databases would be necessary for them to control us, though they’d help.

    It’s so easy to fall into the “nothing to hide” argument though. There’s this interesting article by Daniel Solove which argues that we too often conceptualise privacy using the “1984” metaphor of Orwell’s state surveillance society, which uses these new technologies for social control.

    He suggests that a better metaphor is Franz Kafka’s The Trial, in which an opaque bureaucracy uses people’s personal information to make important decisions about them, while denying them any say in how that information is used. And that sounds to me rather like the organisations that are routinely gathering massive amounts of data about our behaviour: corporations.

    The behavioural targeting companies are able to carry out as a result of the information they gather in the course of doing business with us is incredible. And is successful driving us into a spiralling orgy of consumption, which we as individuals have increasingly little control over.

    The article’s really interesting. Daniel Solove argues that privacy is not so much an individual right against the incursion of the community, as a social right granted by society, making space for the individual because of the benefit this provides to society. Privacy is imposed by society because it grants individuals protection from the suffocating intrusiveness of others: it is a form of social control in itself!

  11. neilstewart Says:

    Thanks Tom, good comment, and lots of ideas there! I’ve responded to a few of them below.

    I agree that CCTV can have positive benefits, as you write. I think that, as with web 2.0, there’s a pay-off; the question becomes, are you willing to give up a certain amount (perhaps a very sizable amount) of your privacy to give you a certain amount of safety and security? All this is tied into the “war on terror” and the drift in this country, at least in certain respects and without wishing to overstate things, towards an authoritarian security state.

    Interesting idea that privacy should be disciplining in its own right. A useful antidote top those who talk about human rights (such as the right to privacy) as a kind of cure-all.

    On Orwell and 1984: I read somewhere fairly recently that it was in fact Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World that had best divined the future, as compared to 1984. BNW posits a state in which consumption and pleasure are the chief, and perhaps only, social goods, and in which the populace are in a state of pacification, which is to a large extent self-imposed. The bureaucratic state of the Trial is a good metaphor also, and there are bits of 1984 that are still very persuasive, for example the condition of permanent war as a way of justifying repressive measures.


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