Privacy is not a right, it’s an agreement

In last argued that communities should be given the right to manage the public lands around them. I said they had a right to sacrifice themselves and their land for profit, just as they should have the right to protect it fiercely. For the former, I want to expand on the concept of Informed Consent. Usually this is a healthcare concept, but I believe it relates to community rights and privacy. In essence, Informed Consent is the process of letting a person known what they are signing up for, and letting them decide whether they should proceed or not. If they wish to proceed, they sign an agreement fully acknowledging the side effects or consequences of doing so.

When an oil baron or land developer comes up to a community who manages the land around them, they should be subject to the conditions of Informed Consent. This means that most, if not all, community members should be informed about not just the gains they might receive by having a corporation enter and exploit their land, but the tangible side effects involved as well. An oil fracker must tell the community members that workers and neighbors of oil fracking operations die due to chemicals and underground processes that have blown up buildings and killed families. A land developer must tell the community members that the water run-off from extra paved roads will ruin any aquifers that run below the community, thereby poisoning their water and destroying both flora and fauna. The community must know that they are signing themselves up for the risk of death, decay, and degradation that comes with industrial exploitation. Then, and only then, should the community decide whether or not they should proceed with taking the revenues and profits of these industrial corporations.

This is the ideal of Informed Consent, and I do not believe that it has been applied toward environmental/ecological efforts because state and federal governments only care about permit applications and half-assed NEPA assessments, forcing death, decay, and degradation down upon communities as they fight tooth and nail to keep these corporations out of their area.

Back to privacy, which has become a growing topic of conversation for technology companies over the past decade as they become more ubiquitous in our lives. Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. all have different takes on privacy, the former of which has harped on a new take on it: Privacy As Human Right. Somehow, as we have concocted human rights over the past few centuries, we never considered that privacy should be included, except tangentially in the case of legal authorities being barred from entering private residences without a warrant. Now, as the internet takes root in the most basic aspects of our lives, privacy transformed from the passing romantic thoughts of anti-urbanists into a (supposed) modern ethical dilemma.

This is a dilemma that only exists because of technology, and as we can see from the likes of Apple, who markets itself as a privacy-first company, it always takes technology to solve the problems of technology. Apple has been on the vanguard of Privacy As Human Right because its business model is not predicated on data mining like most other companies, but on releasing physical products that people want. If the new Apple product promises the bonus of “More Privacy”, then why not? Why would I want less privacy?

Because we are talking about Apple, I’ll provide a couple quotes from Steve Jobs on privacy:

I believe people are smart. Some people want to share more than other people do. Ask them […] Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain language, and repeatedly.

Jobs didn’t describe privacy as a human right, but as an agreement. The ideal process to ensure adequate privacy for a user is to tell them what private details they need to give up in order to use a service, and to let them agree or deny giving up these details. However, since he described privacy so many years ago, the ideal of Informed Consent was never used by tech or marketing corporations, who hid their use of data use behind terms and agreements that were unreadable to everyone except for the most patient lawyers. Knowingly or not, these term sheets dissuaded 99% of users from giving their Informed Consent.

Rather than solving this issue by enforcing Informed Consent, privacy-first companies, politicians and activists are instead pushing for Privacy As Human Right, which has done nothing but muddy the waters on how data is collected and used. If privacy is truly a human right, does that mean no personal data should ever be collected? What if someone wants to share their data? Does that mean we have to establish “Personal Data Sharing As Human Right?” People have a right to live, which is heavily enforced, does that mean we now have to establish that people have a right to die when they choose?

Establishing a new right in the modern age simply means that governments and corporations must walk on a different set of eggshells to accomplish what they want. It is a reshuffling of terms and definitions so that it can include the new Right, but do little to change how it operates in light of this addition.

On the other hand, Informed Consent is a tangible solution. In a transparent, easy-to-understand fashion, all services, government or corporate or otherwise, should explain what it needs from the individual in order to operate, describe what the effects from sharing this information, and then let the individual choose whether it wishes to share this information or not (Of course, governmentally, we must accept the terms in front of the barrel of a gun).