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Forget ‘privacy,’ we need a new term for control of our online lives

Online Privacy

A couple of months ago, I jumped on the get-rich-quick bandwagon by purchasing two Powerball lottery tickets for a chance at the record-breaking $590 million jackpot. Playing the lotto is a terrible financial strategy, of course. But the hours spent fantasizing of a life free of financial burden, filled with giving and traveling and a garage of dirt bikes turned the $4 I burned into a great entertainment investment. 

As the drawing day drew closer, however, I began to ponder the uglier aspects of this new life – accountants, lawyers, swindlers, body guards, greed, mismanaged funds, IRS audits and, above all else, the prospect of never having another moment of meaningful anonymity. With $300-or-so million in my bank account (after taxes), my privacy would not only become more valuable, but it would almost certainly cease to exist. Would winning really be worth it? 

The Web itself shows us that privacy is not necessarily what people are looking for. We want to share ourselves with the world.

Most of you, I can safely presume, would scream “YES!” at the top of your lungs to that question. A lack of privacy and whatever other burdens that would come strapped to the big check are worth $300 million. In fact, we all give up some of our privacy for far less than that – a Facebook profile, a credit card, a smartphone. We reveal reams about ourselves to connect, to vent, to pump ourselves up with whatever feel-good drug that spurts onto our neurons with each “like” and re-tweet we get. As New York Magazine’s Frank Rich recently lamented, “this is the America that prefers to be out there, prizing networking, exhibitionism, and fame more than privacy, introspection, and solitude.”

Privacy advocates ­– the people who believe that details about our lives are more valuable than what we get in return – often deride this collective abandonment of privacy as foolish, narcissistic, and shortsighted. We even have the balls to snicker at the majority of Americans, who, according to CBS News and Pew Research polls, view the NSA’s surveillance efforts as a worthwhile tradeoff for not getting blown to smithereens by some asshole with a dirty bomb. 

These same privacy advocates will tell you most people do, in fact, value privacy; they just don’t understand the consequences of putting data about themselves out into the world, where it can be shared, twisted, and used against them in a court of law. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in the middle: We are narcissistic. We don’t really understand the consequences of sharing and data collection. And, frankly, only about half of us give a damn about any of it. Because of this, the privacy conversation has come to a standstill, even as the NSA forces us to bring it up again and again. How can we fill in this gap?

PrivacyHere’s a start: Stop using the word “privacy” when discussing these issues. Privacy means different things to different people, and different things in different situations. It’s vague, and amorphous, and difficult for anyone, including experts, to grasp or explain in any broadly meaningful way. That’s the first problem.

Second, the Web itself shows us that privacy is not necessarily what people are looking for. We want to share ourselves with the world. We want to exist along side our friends and family in the online communities that are at our disposal. Some of us even want to become “Instagram famous” or build celebrity from our witty tweets. Or we use social media to promote ourselves and our careers. Doing any of these things requires abandoning certain aspects of our otherwise secret lives – and for many, it’s a worthy tradeoff. Putting privacy on a pedestal above all else can be seen as insulting.

So talk of “privacy” is both useless in many instances due to its squishy definition, and can even be degrading.

Instead, we should talk about privacy issues in terms of consent. That’s what we really mean when we say privacy, right? The right to control to how our information is used, and deny consent when we want to – even the biggest social media fans can agree that we all deserve that.  Sure, “consent” doesn’t have quite the sexy ring that “privacy” has, but it (or some other term I haven’t thought of) doesn’t carry the burden of negative connotation either.

Whatever word we use, the point remains the same: Talking about how important and valuable privacy is has proven absolutely futile in the face of more enticing payoffs – payoffs that, while they might not be worth $300 million, have enriched the lives of countless people around the world. Until we can manage to have a conversation that recognizes both the benefits of having less privacy and the value of maintaining the right to consent to how our data is used, it will be nothing but worthless chatter. 

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