Privacy, sex, and prices

A few months back, I noted a video about an earnest Austrian law student, Max Schrems, who demanded that Facebook share the data it had collected on him. The moguls sent him a CD with more than 1,200 pages of personal info PDFed on it.  He found, to his alarm, that things he had deleted were still floating around in Facebook’s collective (un?)conscious: “When you delete something from Facebook, all you are doing is hiding it from yourself,” he said. Unable to induce the cybergiant to scrap this trove of ex-facts, and convinced that there was more material the corporation wasn’t sharing (Facebook refused to reveal, for instance, what data it retained from biometric facial recognition, a technology the website recently introduced) Schrems took action. He filed a complaint with the Data Protection Commission in Ireland, where Facebook’s European operations have their HQ. Schrems explains:

“Facebook most probably has its headquaters in Ireland for tax reasons. That way, Facebook not only saves large amounts of money, but the Irish as well the European laws of data protection and consumer rights are applicable. However, Facebook continues to tailor their terms of use to the American consumer and data protection laws.”

He adds,

“It’s a shock of civilizations. Americans don’t understand the concept of data protection. For them, the person with the rights is the one with the data. In continental Europe, we don’t see things like that … If a company wants to operate in a country it has to abide by the rules.”

Facebook, he says, has agreed in Germany to stop keeping records of users’ IP addresses — information showing where someone is connected to the Internet — but in other European countries the practice continues.

“This is Facebook strategy. When someone gets really annoyed, they back off one step, but continue advancing in other ways,” Schrems said.

The problem is that most people don’t take the time to read the small print in Facebook’s terms and conditions, he says. “For the average citizen data protection is too complex and subtle,” he says, believing it is therefore the responsibility of the state to ensure that users’ rights are upheld.

See this page for more information on Schrems’ campaign.

Lawsuits about violated privacy are piling up athwart the social network. Trying to find Schrems on Google (which probably has a similar file on him) I came across headlines like “Naked Nun Sues over Facebook” (how do you solve a problem like Maria?) Everything about Facebook is porous: your privacy leaks out through each app as if it were a hose suctioning gasoline. Yet whether these measures will intimidate the behemoth is another question. Irish authorities noted that if Facebook doesn’t cooperate, “a court could then fine it up to 100,000 euros ($136,400).” I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg (net worth: $17.5 billion) is trembling in terror. One of these days, he might have to skip lunch.

But the issue of who reads the privacy protections is interesting. A couple of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in the US have made some calculations. Their findings appear in a journal called Transactions of Human-Computer Interaction , which “seeks to be the premier archival journal in the multidisciplinary field of human-computer interaction,” and which sounds from its frightening title like Hustler for robots.Turns out it’s not just that people don’t take the time to read privacy policies; they don’t have the time. Here’s the math: The 75 most popular websites in the country have privacy policies that stretch to a median length of 2,514 words. Academics (whom robots take the be the model humans) can read about 250 words a minute.  And estimates suggest an average American visits 1,462 websites every year. The result: it would take 76 days out of the year to read the privacy policies for all those websites.

They then tried to monetize this. “First, they split up web surfing between work and home visits. For work visits, they valued the time spent reading privacy policies at two times that worker’s wages to take into account overhead and salary. For home visits, they multiplied the time spent reading at home by one-quarter of average wages” — OK,  this is boring.  The gist is, all that time reading those policies would add up to a lot of money. The Atlantic offers a convenient visual:

Think about this. A corporation might pay a hundred thousand bucks as punishment for trampling on your privacy.  It would cost Americans $781 billion just to be aware of how this happens. Um, isn’t the burden in the wrong place here?

Privacy concerns me, among other reasons, because it’s a core component of defending sexual rights and sexual freedom. The US Supreme Court recognized the right to contraception (now under typically eloquent assault from, among many others, Rush Limbaugh) in a genuinely landmark decision that helped articulate the right to privacy.  The first time international courts condemned sodomy laws, it was because they violated the right to privacy.  That people should have autonomy and control over both intimate decisions and intimate information has become a staple of rights discourse and progressive thought.

It’s ironic, though; because in the same time, sex has become vastly more … well, public.  And that isn’t only because of the retreat of guilt or shame or the inflation of pudic courage in the wake of the Sexual Revolution. It’s also because sex has become a key way of selling things. It’s not just that sex itself is commodified. Sex is a method and technique of commodifying everything else.  Sex is what commodities wear, a sheen and scent upon them, a fine integument of pheromones sprayed on like perfume, that keeps the consumer buying.

Turn on the TV!  The commercials are sexier than the regular programming.  Drive down the highway!  The signs and billboards swoosh by like erotic flashcards, Rorschach invitations to desire so rampant and uncoded that, once you’re inured to them, their very blatancy comes to seem subliminal.

The ad at top left, by the way, is for a church promoting its sex-related sermons.

It gets harder and harder to maintain that sex is private, not because it’s so flagrant, but because it stands in seamlessly for the great public fact of our time: money.   And in fact, privacy itself has turned into money too.  It’s not just the $100,000 fines or that hypothetical $800 billion to defend it. It’s the fact that Facebook, Google, and the rest make most of their money marketing your privacy, selling it off in discrete chunks of information.

Facebook’s initial public offering (IPO), when the social network is expected to raise $5 bilion by putting its stock on the market, is privacy itself going public, parcelled out to brokers and bidders. In a world like this, where intimacy and autonomy are publicly traded commodities, what can privacy possibly mean?