Thinking Through Internet Privacy

In this post, I want to explore the idea of internet privacy, from a very broad perspective. This is a very rough sketch of the initial idea of internet privacy, sparked by the continuing debate on issues like the legal/ethical responsibilities of corporations, and the responsibilities of the service-users. I will begin with a brief outline of a core notion of ethics, and then move on to the idea of internet privacy as such.


Ethics is a field of study concerned with systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. Every society has some kinds of ethical standards – core rules that serve as a (mostly) immutable base for thinking about ethics. However, the core rules are usually few in number (think: the 10 commandments), which do not cover the full scope of nearly infinite human circumstances. This is where the implications and interpretations of the core rules enters the picture: by drawing on the core, immutable principles, society creates flexible strategies for their particular issues and the kinds of contexts in which those issues arrive.

If a society could remain static, if their context would become entirely stable, then the legal and ethical ideas of that society could remain static as well. In essence, it is only because of the change in context that the old solutions cease to be viable. Changes in technology have historically been a major catalyst in the change of social context. As such, they result in a need to reevaluate and reformulate both our legal and ethical standards.

Case in point, theft used to mean something like the acquisition of the property of another, without their consent, which then deprived the original/rightful owner of that property. This kind of a definition had functioned rather well for the entirety of human existence. However, with the rise of the digital age, the issue of intellectual property required a full reevaluation of the notion of theft. If Bob were to illegally download a song, the original/rightful owner is not deprived of that property. In fact, the property is still just as much in their possession as it was before the download. This means that the very definition of theft has to be reformulated, in order to protect intellectual property; in order to allow the legal and moral judgments to reflect the new kinds of context in which something like “theft” could occur.

The coming of the digital age has been celebrated with terms like “progress.” However, we generally fail to understand the dark side of such terms. While it does have the meaning of moving forward – as in headed towards some “better” destination, it also implies change. Specifically, change in context. With every such change, it become necessary to reevaluate and reformulate the kinds of legal and ethical rules governing the new context, in order socially adapt to the new realities. This process is often quite painful, requiring a series of trial-and-error processes before the right kind of balance is found. Traditionally, the rate of such progress – and thus the rate of adaptation – has been relatively slow. This has allowed societies ample room to adjust to one set of circumstances, before turning to face another. With the increase in technological progress, the time-frame for adaptation is shrinking rapidly. That means that our time for trial-and-error, and the ability to get it right, has also shrunk. And that means that the odds of getting it wrong have increased dramatically.


When we think of privacy, in a traditional sense, we mean something like the etymological root of “private:” “pertaining or belonging to oneself, not shared, individual; not open to the public;” from Latin privatus “set apart, belonging to oneself (not to the state), peculiar, personal,” used in contrast to publicus, communis. 

Privacy was what happened outside of the public view; behind closed doors; when one retired from the social sphere and its shared context into the private sphere and its closed context. Traditionally, this distinction was a crucial one for both law and ethics. Private matters, by definition, did not concern the public sphere – as a rule – and were confined to only the select choice of individuals.[1] That means that the laws and the ethics that applied in the private sphere were different from those in the public sphere. Case in point, you are perfectly welcome to walk about your home in your birthday suit, or to engage in sexual relations. However, it is decidedly not socially acceptable to do so in public – both morally and legally.

Whatever happened in the public sphere was considered to be the kind of thing that could be known by everyone – and whose sharing was legitimate. Whatever happened in the private sphere was considered taboo to share – without the explicit consent of all parties involved. Thus, the act of spying or otherwise intruding on the private sphere was considered a grave breach of ethical (and often legal) norms.

A major part of how and why this distinction functioned was the kinds of physical separation between the two spheres. When you walked into your home, you physically entered the private sphere, where you remained until you decided to physically reemerge into the public sphere. The private and public spheres were clearly demarcated by the physical space one occupied.[2] The advent of the internet threw a rather sizable wrench into this distinction.

The internet created a new, and absolutely unique, medium of human interaction, in several ways.

  1. One could be entirely public while in the private sphere.
  2. Activities that once had a clear public form, now appeared private.
  3. Activities that once had a clear private form, now necessarily take on a public form.

The rise of social media (starting with its earliest predecessors, like IRC) introduced the ability to engage in public spaces while simultaneously remaining in a physically private space. Thus, one could speak to vast groups of people from around the world, while sitting at home. Additionally, that engagement was such that it preserved a sense of private space – one did not have to engage in conversation, or could have a private conversation away from the rest of the group. Further, the relative anonymity also meant that the public and private personas, as well as social rules governing public spaces, could be discarded. After all, if you did not have to wear pants to engage in this public sphere, why should any other rules hold?

If you were to walk into a store, and ask for some particular item, you would not feel the least bit perturbed if the owner were to take note of what you were asking for, and use that information to modify his future stock. You would not feel perturbed if they were to do so by collecting the information from all such requests of all their customers. Part of the reason for this reaction (or lack thereof) on your part is because you understand that you are in a public place – and as such, the expectation is that your public requests are public knowledge. However, we do not feel the same way when Amazon or Google track our purchases, our interests, etc. What’s the difference?

When you walk into a physical store, you understand that you are acting in the public sphere. But when you are shopping on Amazon, you are in the private sphere. Even if you are shopping on your phone in public, you are using your personal item (phone) to make a purchase in a way that certainly feels private. You are not interacting with others – at least not in the sense that’s normally associated with the public sphere. It’s that feeling of dissociating from the public sphere that makes the notion of someone on the other end of the transaction following your interests disturbing in a way that suggests a breach of private space. And that’s despite the fact that you are engaged in what is normally a public action.

Finally, and most importantly, activities that once had a clear private form, now necessarily take on a public form. While we may feel that we are having a private conversation over some form of social media, that is inherently incorrect. The use of internet means that we are acting in an artificial medium; a medium that is necessarily constructed, maintained, and supervised by a 3rd party. A chatroom, or any other social media platform (or the very use of internet, for that matter) is an artificial environment. The mere use of that environment means that someone has to maintain its existence, and your ability to use it. As a result, the use of internet (and particularly of specific platforms) means that you cannot be in a private space – because you are, necessarily, always supervised. On the internet, you are never without another person in the room; you are never without a chaperone.

All websites and apps are, by definition, public spaces. Even if you are alone, the platform is with you. Websites and apps are, in essence, something like particular city squares. This one may hold a market, that one may be dedicated to mingling. However, they are all public squares. When you decide to visit, you are, inherently, in public. The fact that you can visit these public spaces, while otherwise remaining in private and engaging in activities strictly prohibited in the private sphere (e.g. tweeting from your toilet), does not change the fact that you are, in fact, acting publicly.

And here lies the rub. In the traditional distinction, we know which acts belong to which sphere. Thus, we do not complain when our public acts are recorded. We certainly do not demand laws to prevent the actions of the public sphere from being public – as such a demand is senseless.[3] But the confusion of the internet age is precisely in the fact that the two spheres, which had been obviously demarcated until just a few years ago, have merged in the internet medium. We have not had the time to reevaluate or reformulate our ethical or legal comprehension of these developments. In fact, it seems like we have not even grasped the issues properly – given the kinds of incoherent ideas about internet that abound.

Demanding internet privacy, as if it were a matter of traditional form of privacy, fails to grasp the realities of what the internet is; namely a public forum where all our behaviors necessarily go through a public 3rd party. The fact that we feel as if our actions on the internet take place in the private sphere is no more helpful than feeling that we’re not exposed in public – reality takes no note of our feelings, and if the two are out of sync, then it is reality that wins.

The proliferation of new varieties of social media and other platforms is only adding to the confusion. The old ethical and legal norms are breaking under the weight of the changes in context. However, we are still mostly attempting to work from our old models of ethics and law. Partially, this is because the new technology is complicated enough to avoid easy comprehension. The problem is compounded by the fact that many of the people responsible for making judgments and laws regarding this field have an entirely inadequate grasp on the technology.

That is not to say that internet privacy is not something to work towards. However, whatever form such privacy takes will necessarily require a reevaluation, reformulation, and redefinition of what privacy is, what it entails, and what a breach of such privacy means. The traditional division of public and private spheres in the age of internet is no longer a meaningfully functional distinction.

Step one seems to be to admit that we have a problem: a problem created by the fact that the introduction of new technology has wildly altered the context in which our ethical and legal ideas are supposed to function. Step two would then be to reevaluate, reformulate, and redefine what those once-familiar terms can and should mean in this new context. Only then will the pursuit of a “solution” be coherent, because only then can the problem be defined – and therefore, only then can we have a coherent notion of what we’re talking about. Unfortunately, while we have begun to move in the correct direction on step one, if slowly, step two seems to have entirely skipped. Until we direct our attention to the fact that the ideas we once held are no longer tenable, that our concepts and reality have come out of joint, there is no meaningful chance for real progress in the ethical dimension of technology.



[1]With the notable exception of private actions that had a direct impact on the public sphere – such as plotting criminal activity or treason – but the nature of such action exposes them to legal sanction and justifies the intrusion into such “private” spaces by law enforcement.

[2]Communal activities in a private space, such as parties held in a home, take on a version of public form, by the nature of their “open” character.

[3]Senseless because they attempt to break the law of identity; to demand that public sphere should be private – i.e. a demand that a = ~a.

1 thought on “Thinking Through Internet Privacy”

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