Everyone Knows Privacy Is About Power. Now What?

In a recent op-ed, author Evgeny Morozov claims that we tend to think of privacy in terms of control over personal information rather than power or influence. “The privacy debate, incapacitated by misplaced pragmatism, defines privacy as individual control over information flows,” writes Morozov. Instead we should be thinking of how and why powerful institutions use data to nudge us toward their own economic and political ends.

I am not sure what Morozov is reading. The idea that privacy has everything to do with power and the prospect of manipulation is the animating theme of Julia Angwin’s Dragnet Nation—a New York Times bestseller. According to the White House (heard of it?) report on big data, the very problem is over-influence: “Society must take steps to guard against these potential harms by ensuring power is appropriately balanced between individuals and institutions, whether between citizen and government, consumer and firm, or employee and business.” For the World Economic Forum, “These power dynamics serve to frame the narrative for many of the digital dilemmas shaping the personal data ecosystem.” Their position paper endorses the proposition that “We are only beginning to understand how vast asymmetries of information coupled with the unilateral power to design the legal and visual terms of the transaction could alter the consumer landscape.”

Though perhaps newly mainstream, the idea is not new. The title of the leading work by the leading scholar in privacy law is Privacy and Power: Computer Databases and Metaphors for Information Privacy. Other privacy scholars to take up this connection include Julie Cohen, Paul Schwartz, Neil Richards (including with Jonathan King), Danielle Citron, Frank Pasquale, Tal Zarsky, and Jason Schultz (with Kate Crawford). And that’s just a sampling of “legal academics,” to borrow Morozov’s boogeyman: other disciplines have been writing in this vein since the nineteen seventies.

Everyone knows privacy is about power. Now what? Recent work by Cohen has gone as far as anyone in describing a solution space to massive asymmetries of information and influence. She would require simultaneously that people understand how technology works (“operational transparency”) and are sometimes surprised by it. Michel Foucault came to urge (in The Use of Pleasure) that we escape the constraining forces of our episteme through an aesthetics of existing, that is, living life as a work of art. Similarly, Cohen would make room for “play” in contemporary day-to-day by purposively cultivating gaps in civic and private power. Danielle Citron argues for “technological due process” that embeds accountability into the algorithms that increasingly govern our existence. I call for a disruption of incentives of firms to use information and influence to nudge consumers for profit. And so on.

Each of these accounts has its problems. Each is incomplete. Let’s talk about them and generate many others. Let’s stop diagnosing the problem and roll up our sleeves and do the hard, complex work of addressing it.


Michael, I'm going to respond a little later to your thoughtful comments. Thank you.

Ryan, you portray Evgeny's point as juxtaposing control with power, which I'm not sure he does. He refers to privacy as individual control over [personal] information flows, but does not necessarily dismiss power as a structural element other than by not referring to it explicitly. His last paragraph, where he accuses legal academics of being disconnected from broader political issues, is probably a better target.
As for the issue itself: my sense is that "control" has become equated, at least in American privacy discourse with "notice and choice" , which indeed have their problems (but also some support, with arguments against notice skepticism, like your excellent paper). The focus on the initial collection of data is unfortunate. I think it will be useful to broaden the scope of "control" and add more upstream "meeting points" between subject and controller, including transparency, technological due process, incentives and judges, and other great ideas that you and our colleagues suggest – all aiming at mitigating power imbalances and re-empower the individual. Once we understand "control" in a broader way (is it ok to say in a European spirit?), "control" and "power" are on the same side.

Neil Richards and I talked about this in three paradoxes of big data - power is the root paradox. I am starting to think that property rights in the form of new personal property rights and/or personhood will need to be developed but that might be pushing it too far for my writing partner :)
I have other ideas I hope to explore when work hopefully let's up and gives me time to write again. I loved your Digital Marketplace Manipulation work and we referenced it in our Big Data Ethics.

Thanks, Jonathan. I'm going revise the above because of course your work with Neil expands greatly on his HLR essay.

Sorry, I meant Morozov's.

Got it. My apologies!

Got it. My apologies!

Luciano, thank you, although I don't see Siva's comment as sloppy (if that's what you mean). He's a careful scholar; I just think he's being overly charitable here.

I'm guessing Luciano saw Evgeny Morozov's comments as sloppy, not Siva's...

Thanks. Nice, thoughtful piece.

Dear Dr Calo, thank you for the blog. The (correct) clarification should be unnecessary, but you are right, and it is useful to remind people that a bit of scholarly, serious research goes a long way towards clarifying and solving debates. It is painful to see things that are already complicated messed up by sloppy comments.

Siva, yes, I think you missed something. Evgeny says privacy discourse is "disconnected from broader political and economic issues." It isn't. He also tweeted a response to Evan Selinger to the same effect.
He said policymakers (still) view everything in terms of individual control over information. They don't.
I also disagree that privacy scholars have "almost no influence" over public discourse. You do, for instance.

I don't think Evgeny addressed privacy scholars in that piece. Did I miss something? He was discussion public discourse, over which privacy scholars have had almost no influence. So isn't his point strong? We have flailed at the effort to get the public -- or even journalists -- to understand privacy. So isn't it important to keep trying? Isn't Evgeny's op-ed of a piece with that effort?

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