From Public/Private to Public Privacy

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Bernhard Debatin
Ohio University, E.W. Scripps School of Journalism

From Public/Private to Public Privacy: A Critical Perspective on the Infosphere.

Essence of the problem:
In the early modern era, the public sphere was a constitutive corollary of the private sphere. In the era of the infosphere, the public and private spheres become amalgamated, which results in public exploitation of private lives, increasing invasion of privacy, and continual diminishment of unmonitored privacy.


The theoretical discussion of the concept of the public sphere


1. Public/Private
The notion of the public sphere has been a fruitful analytical category for understanding formations and transformations of public discourse, and for analyzing the modern distinction between public and private from a historical and systematic point of view. Historically seen, the public sphere emerged from a new social, economic, and communicative constellation, the bürgerliche Gesellschaft (bourgeois society). The public sphere must be understood as constitutive corollary of the private sphere. The interaction of these two spheres was a necessary condition for and at the same time birth place of the modern individual. Following Habermas' sociological and theoretical concept of the structural transformation of the public sphere, one can conclude that the distinction between private and public worked as the basic grammatical rule of early bourgeois society.

2. Revitalization of Public Discourse
As analyzed by Habermas, the structural transformation of the public sphere from the early Enlightenment to the late capitalist welfare state led to a "refeudalization" and "ossification" of the public sphere, dominated by a short circuit of privileged communication between the commercially driven mass media and an elitist political system. This view referred to the period of the German Wirtschaftswunder in the early 1960s, during which economic success was accompanied by a paralysis of public discourse. In his later writings, particularly since the "Theory of Communicative Action," Habermas replaced this pessimistic perspective with a more hopeful model, in which grassroots initiatives and citizens' movements can influence and instigate public discourse. Thus, the idea of a revitalization of the public sphere could be built upon actual societal agents and existing social movements. Though this view is both more optimistic and more accurate, it does not sufficiently take into account the pitfalls of the information society.

3. Invasion of Privacy and the Infosphere
Public discourse is the necessary condition and at the same time unreachable ideal of modern democracy. Yet, it has become a scarce good in the information society and the era of digitized mass communication. At the same time, governmental and commercially motivated surveillance, and the pressure of public opinion cut deeply into people's private lives. Privacy is not, however, just a citizen's right, it is a need and necessity for civilized life and the development of subjectivity. The normative power of the public eye and the controlling power of discourse formations should be reviewed under the conditions of digital invasions of privacy in global communication networks and databases. Thus, we are witnessing the dawn of a tightly woven global infosphere, a digitized networked panoptic sphere that leaves little space for unmonitored privacy.

4. The New Sphere of an Amalgamated Public Privacy
As privacy is increasingly turning into a public and/or commercial good, the distinction public/private is being replaced by an amalgamated public privacy.
This new sphere of public privacy is characterized by

  • a culture of public confession and public display and exploitation of the most intimate details of private lives;
  • a culture of public moralization and condemnation of private lifestyles by self-appointed moral majorities, value committees, and sentinels of politically correctness;
  • a digitized network of social control, based on vast amounts of personal data, collected, exchanged, and interconnected by commercial, health, governmental, and other agencies.

The political reactions to the events of September 11, 2001, have shown that the surveillance function of the infosphere can be triggered when necessary, and basic rights and liberties of citizens are subordinated to the greater good of global surveillance. As much as the public sphere was a corollary of the private sphere in the early modern era, the sphere of amalgamated Public Privacy is the inescapable accompaniment of the infosphere.


Due to time restrictions, I cannot address the all the complexities of the sphere of public privacy (see reference 1). In my presentation, I plan to focus on two examples of resistance strategies on the macro- and the micro-level:

1. The Macro-Level: Revitalization of Public Discourse and the Infosphere
In contrast to conventional mass media, the Internet permits true nonhierachical, multidirectional communication. In addition, it has a low access and publication threshold; anyone who has the necessary equipment and skills can publish in the WWW or take part in its discussions. As a hybrid medium, the Internet is thus an ideal medium for the interactive forms and needs of communication in the lifeworld. However, it must be emphasized that it is only the social and political actions of human beings, and not the technical structure, that can lead to a revitalization of public discourse in the infosphere.

This revitalization is to be found on three main levels of public communication:
(1) Virtual episodic public encounters, such as those that take place in everyday life on the street or in bars, are to be found especially in chat rooms and other loose virtual communities where persons enjoy the protection of "intimate anonymity." (2) Internet-based forms of public assembly can be observed primarily in discussion forums, newsgroups, and mailing lists that are focused on a particular group or topic. (3) Even mass-media based public communication is undergoing a transformation due to the Internet. The conventional media have come under pressure to react constantly to the Internet because of its new role in processes of agenda setting. At the same time, mass media participate in the Internet with their own content and thus constitute a new form of mass communication. This trend is visible in the Internet presence of nearly all print and broadcast media, as well as in the mediamix and cross-media productions of established media conglomerates.

2. The Micro-Level: Regulating Invasion of Privacy
Currently, invasion of privacy is usually understood as a problem of the individual whose privacy has been infringed upon. When it comes to collecting and disseminating data, users are at best asked to opt out, often without a clear description of what the government or commercial bodies will do with the data and, even more importantly, what third parties might be able to do with them. Long documents, usually written in fine print that hardly anybody will read online or offline, are the widespread basis for opt-out opportunities. Moreover, most of these opt-out choices are also presented as possibly disadvantageous to the user. This allows data collecting bodies to accumulate, exchange, and connect immense amounts of personal data without any supervision and usually without the individual's knowledge as well.

Instead of offering a mere opt-out choice, all data collecting bodies should be obliged to offer an opt-in choice as their default setting. At the same time, they must make sufficiently clear to users what they agree to when they opt in. Adopting the criterion of informed consent, I argue that it is not enough to provide a lot of fine print and vague descriptions. Instead, the intended and possible uses by the collecting body and third parties must be clearly and comprehensibly specified, and possible side effects must be addressed, too. This approach might appear as cumbersome at first sight. Yet, it would only reinstate the users' right to self determination and control over their personal information. The success of this approach depends, of course, on the pressure that public discourse can exert on the agenda of the mass media and on the political system.

Note about the images:
Image 1: The conventional model of panoptic surveillance, illustrated with a picture of the floor plan of Pittsburg penitentiary.
Image 2: The digitized networked panoptic infosphere is potentially decentralized, yet in actuality centered around the most powerful computer networks and databases, and on those groups that control access to and flow of networked information in the infosphere. It can be illustrated with a node map of a small part of the WWW, originating from the author's web page (created with the web browser IOD 4).

Pattern status: