Some time ago, I had speculated that privacy might be a fairly uncommon concept throughout much of human history and that the apparent loss of privacy in today’s online world might be a manifestation more of loss of anonymity rather than loss of privacy. Now an interesting historical article on privacy offers additional historical perspective on this concept and its realization or absence. Having been spammed vigorously for my speculation that privacy might be an anomaly, I confess that I felt a little better on reading this article.
These speculations are not intended, however, to argue that privacy is unimportant or unwanted. More than ever, in a world in which our (online) actions leave behind traceable spoor, the desire and even need for privacy deserves respect. I lived in Germany in 1962 near a little town called Beutelsbach. There were about 3000 inhabitants and it seemed as if everyone knew what everyone else was doing, especially the postmaster who not only sorted the mail but who also placed all telephone calls since the locals did not have telephones in their residences (!). In some ways the McLuhanesque formulation of the “global village” reminds me of Beutelsbach on a global scale.
Those of us who seek to make the Internet more affordable, accessible, sustainable and useful will do well to keep this matter of privacy in mind. Recent legislation in India makes privacy a citizen’s right in a landmark case. Internet’s users should feel free to partake of its contents without feeling that their online behavior is unprotected public information or that governments and law enforcement agents have access without due process. These reminders tell us that there is a growing list of desiderata to be associated with Internet access and use and that PCI participants will be thanked for keeping these things in mind as they go about their work.