Jeff Jarvis attacks Germany for fostering Internet privacy.

Scrutinizing culture.
Dec. 20 2010 6:34 PM

Don't Cry for Me, Jeff Jarvis

Google guru attacks Germany for allowing Internet privacy.

(Continued from Page 1)

(This framework is also useful in assessing Wikileaks, which Jarvis approves of, and which I approve of, too, because it's big government that's being made more transparent, not defenseless individuals.)        

In the German case, there's the matter of cultural insensitivity. "[D]on't tell me it has a damned thing to do with the Nazis and Stasi," Jarvis warns us forbiddingly, trying to pre-empt an argument he knows he'll lose. Easy for him to say, not having lived through these surveillance regimes. Bad as the Nazis were, the Stasi, the East German secret police, were even more surveillance-oriented. (Jeff, put The Lives of Others in your Netflix queue). The Stasi realized the dark dream of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham's panopticon prison, turning a whole state into a prison by means of total surveillance.

It might be worth dwelling for a moment on the panopticon, because I believe Jeff, who has not demonstrated much familiarity with history before Google or philosophy before Zuckerberg, perfectly illustrates the shallowness of many of today's Internet gurus. Futurists who have no time for the past are now running "integrated marketing J-schools" and "entrepreneurial" programs rather than giving journalism students the deeper understanding of society, history, culture, and humanity that places like Columbia's J-school and Harvard's Nieman fellowship still care about.

And if he is aware of the panopticon and its implications, it's all the more shameful that he doesn't see the kind of digital totalitarianism he is shilling for.

But what grates most is his increasingly shrill and hysterical (in both senses of the word) advocacy of imposed, involuntary "publicness" on everyone. He seems unable to understand the difference between the virtues of transparency when it comes to powerful closed worlds of government and corporate power, and the perils—and invasiveness—of transparency when it comes to individual people.

While I have my disagreements with Hannah Arendt, her assertion that the essence of totalitarianism is the erasure of the boundary between the public and private spheres holds true. The takeover of the private by the public is always to be feared. Here again, one suspects Jeff is ignorant of such arguments. I would challenge him to tell us whether he's read Arendt and, if so, what his response to her is. After all, this is someone who has been given a professorship at a major university. "Crowdsourcing" fellow Internet gurus is not the equivalent of an education but, rather, the compounding of multiple ignorances.

This apparent lack of familiarity with the discourse on privacy and totalitarianism (especially for someone writing a book on "publicness") is so bizarrely naive that one is tempted to examine Jeff's "everybody must behave like me" attitude with the psychological equivalent of an intrusive TSA scanner. What's going on inside the cranial cavity of someone with the dire need to force "publicness" on privacy-loving citizens, on behalf of a Peeping Tom Big Brother? Could it be that in some recess of his psyche, he's actually mortified by having thrust his genitals in everyone's face and wants to make us all do the equivalent so he will seem less like a freak?

Actually, those of us who care about the preservation of privacy rights are fortunate to have someone as clueless as Jarvis as a figurehead of the movement to destroy them.

And privacy issues are only becoming more and more salient as the Web evolves. Jarvis has so far not commented on this invasion of privacy as far as I know. (I wonder why.) I am not enamored of abusive anonymous commenters who hide behind screen names, but don't believe they should be involuntarily stripped of their anonymity. Jeff, let's hear you praise the Gawker hack if you're so into "publicness."

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Meanwhile the very words, that devil-phrase "opt-out," that Jarvis feels is bombing and desecrating German buildings has now become the next battle in Web culture in America—indeed, in society as a whole, since the national TSA freakout over naked scanning and genital groping.

But there is a different kind of bargain with regard to privacy at the airport: You get to decide whether to fly, and allowing passengers to opt out of screening entirely could potentially put other people's lives in danger.

The real philosophical, conceptual battle will come over the FTC's proposal to allow Web surfers to opt-out of "behavioral profiling" enabled by "cookies" and more technically advanced tracking devices. Here the opt-out endangers the profitability of commercial entities on the Web in favor of personal privacy. The front page of the Times business section for Dec. 6 featured a story on "The Opt-Out Question: On-line Privacy Plan Raises Concerns in Tailoring Ads." The more Web publishers know about consumer preferences from online profiling, the more they can charge advertisers for accurately targeting potential buyers. But the more they know the less privacy you'll have, especially as tracking and data-mining get more sophisticated.

During the next two months, the FTC will be seeking comments from all interested parties on what the effect on Web commerce and Web culture would be if some kind of "do not track" mechanism allows privacy-minded consumers to opt out. The Times quoted opponents saying a "do not track" mechanism would "limit the ability for companies to monetize the Internet."

The privacy-reserving choices seem to be between an omni "opt-out," through which, once you press a button, your default position is that your information can't be tracked at all, and a limited opt-out button through which consumers on a site they don't want tracked could click through to a page that denies tracking for that specific site. Web industry associations darkly warn that the downside of the opt-out option would be the need to shift to more paid-content models.

It looks as if it's going to be a bitter battle. But one thing both sides should agree to in advance is to "opt-out" of paying attention to ignoramuses like Jeff "What have you done, Germany?" Jarvis.

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