Privacy is not an individual privilege, as much as it is a collective benefit

Posted on Jun 26, 2016 by Rick Falkvinge
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All debates on privacy at the society level tend to focus on the individual rights of people vs. a collective desire for law enforcement. But this view of individual vs collective is highly skewed. Privacy is first and foremost a collective benefit, not an individual privilege.

It’s possible to debate endlessly whether privacy is a right or a privilege, whether it is absolute or relative, and what other concerns should balance it, if any. In most societies, it’s regarded as an “absolute right” that is still “balanced against other legitimate interests” (and therefore not a right at all, but a privilege, as it can be taken away).

Lately, some aspect of privacy has been removed wholesale at every legislative opportunity, being framed more or less as a harmful privilege for criminals that stands in the way of law enforcement. This perspective of privacy is completely wrong.

Privacy is the collective ability for a society to evolve. It is a collective benefit much more than an individual privilege.

In all societies, contemporary and historical, there have been taboos. And in all societies, some of these taboos have been completely wrong on a factual level, on a moral level, or both. The ability for an individual to think forbidden thoughts in the safety of their own privacy allows these taboos to be challenged softly in every society, and eventually allows the society to progress to the point where it sheds them.

Let’s take a tangible example in living memory: homosexuality. People who were born homosexual were criminal from birth around 1950, merely by having a criminal sort of wiring. This is what we should think of when legislators talk about “rounding up organized crime”: if these people had not been allowed to explore and express their personality in violation of the taboo at the time, society would not have evolved and homosexuality would still have been illegal to this day.

When you create a Panopticonal society that is able to prevent all crime, down to thinking criminal thoughts (yes, bad thoughts will be made illegal the second such “bad” thought can be located, prevented, and enforced), then the result is an enormous conformism. A legislature that has no external pressure at all to change laws, and can enforce its entire code of law, will consider society to be its private dollhouse where its rules are absolute rather than its chaos where stewardship must be responsible. But as we know, a certain amount of diversity – of deviation from the average – is necessary for a society to try new things.

It is not just a matter of trying taboos; it’s also all forms of entrepreneurship. People who don’t find comfort in the tranquility of the familiar, but frustration that nobody has solved a particular problem better, so they go at it themselves. This, too, requires privacy – real, permissionless privacy. And without this benefit, innovation and value evolution stop.

Privacy scholars argue that this was the real reason for the economic stagnation and standstill of Eastern Europe under Soviet domination after WW2: people were so pressured to conform to a certain school of thought, that decentralized entrepreneurship effectively became illegal, and therefore, Eastern Europe (and the Soviet Union) relentlessly fell behind the societies with privacy which were permitted to evolve on all levels.

Privacy is more than an individual privilege; it is a collective benefit in that it allows society to evolve. In this, it pays in every way to safeguard privacy as an individual right.

About Rick Falkvinge

Rick is Head of Privacy at Private Internet Access. He is also the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. Additionally, he has a tech entrepreneur background and loves good whisky and fast motorcycles.

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