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Privacy is geen product

Gisteravond was Evegeny Morozov in De Balie om ons uit te leggen hoe wij wél moeten nadenken over technologie. De volledige sessie is online beschikbaar. Ik was één van de drie referenten. De tekst van mijn Engelstalige toespraak staat hieronder.

Good evening all,

I work for a digital civil rights organization called Bits of Freedom. When I last talked to Mr. Morozov about digital civil rights he immediately said: “What is digital about rights? What a ridiculous idea!”

He is right of course. The point isn’t that we should have different rights in the digital domain. The point is that more and more of our interactions are intermediated by digital technology owned by third parties. And that this puts pressure on fundamental human rights like privacy and freedom of speech.

After Mr. Snowden’s coming out, we now know that each and everyone of us is under surveillance. The secret services are helped along by the massive amounts of data that a few tech-giants trick us into giving them under the nomer of social networking. These commercial companies are slowly but surely taking the position of governors of our lives. An increasingly large part of our lives is spent living inside Google’s ‘jurisdiction’ for example.

So what can we as consumers do about this?

De Privacy Café website
De Privacy Café website

In the recent months we have seen an increase in privacy awareness. Here in the Netherlands there is a set of grassroots volunteers who travel through the country organizing ‘Privacy Cafe’s’, in which they teach people how to protect themselves against snooping governments and data-hoarding companies. These free sessions are usually fully booked. For me their success is bittersweet.

On the one hand it is wonderful that people become aware of the fact that technology is never neutral. As Benkler says: “Technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice. Some things become easier and cheaper, others harder and more expensive.” Cars create the social practices of suburbs and traffic jams, the TV creates couch potatoes and the social practice of social networking is the surveillance state.

But these ‘Privacy Café’s’ make me a bit sad too: I don’t want to live in a world where we have to start behaving like criminals to feel safe or free. I don’t want to wear a plastic mask so that the facial recognition algoritms in CCTV camera’s can’t recognise me. The solution to banks selling our financial transactional data can’t be to take out a 1000 euros from the ATM every couple of weeks and then spend it in cash. People defending themselves by encrypting everything is a solution at the wrong level.

The commercial world is willing to help and is very quick to jump on the opportunity. Not only should we buy their products, we now have to buy our privacy from them too. Mr. Morozov aptly calls this the ‘Ryanairization of privacy’. Every day I see more examples of it.


This company called ‘PrivateRelay’ is clearly opportunistic. They market a completely ordinary email service with statements like: “Stop the misuse of your personal data for surveillance and sales/marketing purposes.”

Secret Alter Ego
Secret Alter Ego

This one is plainly deceitful. Their service, ‘Secret Alter Ego’, was geared towards helping people commit adultery. Apparently it wasn’t very successful.


So they have rebranded themselves as ‘Privider’, a general privacy solution full of false promises.

And finally we have Facebook…

Facebook's 'anonymous login'
Facebook’s ‘anonymous login’

They’ve recently announced something that will put, to use their words, “power and control squarely in people’s hands”. They call it ‘anonymous login’. It will allow people to use Facebook to log in to apps without sharing their Facebook information with them. Facebook conveniently omits to mention the fact that Facebook will still know exactly which services you use and when.

In short: we can’t trust the market to self-regulate. Instead they will do their version of ‘greenwashing’, which I’ll call ‘privacywashing’ frome here on.

So if we can’t and shouldn’t have to defend ourselves with technology and if the market won’t solve it either, what can we do?

I’ve consciously called people ‘consumers’ throughout this short talk. And that is exactly what is wrong. We need to stop framing ourselves as consumers, there is more to life than consumption. We need to start calling ourselves ‘citizens’ again instead.

Let’s start having these conversations about deep societal problems where they belong: in the political domain and as citizens. I hope tonight can be a solid start.

Thank you very much.

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