Monday, October 8, 2012


There's an entire, vibrant privacy conference business.  There are privacy conferences somewhere in the world every week of the year.  Some are commercial, some are taxpayer-funded.  Why are they so boring?

Because they take one of the most interesting topics in the world, privacy, and discuss and debate it from an insular perspective, namely, from the perspective of people who are in the privacy "industry."  I'm very clearly part of this "industry" too.

The privacy "industry", or "privacy industrial complex", as some wags have dubbed it, consists of privacy professionals at companies, privacy advocates, privacy regulators, privacy consultants, etc.  So, conferences tend to be incredibly banal statements about who's more committed to privacy, and begin with stentorian declarations, like "privacy is a fundamental human right, therefore...".  Or they consist of a "debate" between two privacy advocates, which is like listening to two members of the National Rifle Association debate the social benefits of gun control.  Or they consist of paid-corporate advocates trashing their competitors' privacy record, often without disclosing who is paying them to do so.

The interesting privacy debates, in my opinion, are the debates where privacy is balanced against other fundamental human rights, like freedom of speech, or balanced against other social goals, like encouraging innovation, or tested against other yardsticks, like regulatory cost-benefit analysis.  But very little of that occurs at privacy conferences, because virtually no one from outside the privacy "industry" speaks at such events.  E.g., rather than hearing privacy-people talk endlessly about the need for more privacy regulation, I'd like to hear from an economist evaluating whether such regulations are effective, or whether their costs exceed their benefits.  Rather than hearing privacy-people talk about the need to create a "right to be forgotten", I'd rather hear from a free speech advocate on how such a right would undermine freedom of expression.  Rather than hear privacy-people talk about how technology needs to be reined in, and subject to bureaucratic prior approval (in other words, slowed-down), I'd rather hear from people who are committed to building modern and dynamic economies about how (archaic) privacy laws are hampering the creation of innovation-based economies.

But privacy conferences have largely become like any other conclaves of groupthink.  At a Vatican conclave, you don't get a serious discussion about the health benefits of promoting the use of condoms.  At a Tea Party rally, you don't get a serious discussion about whether government welfare benefits are a guarantor of minimal human decency.

I have pretty much stopped going to most privacy conferences, at least for now.  When I go, it's mostly to have a chance to have one-on-one chats with people I'd like to meet or catch-up with.  I think privacy is the most interesting topic in the world.  But groupthink gatherings don't move the debate forward.  If I was at an NRA meeting, I'd advocate for gun control to help reduce the shockingly high murder rates in the US, and I'd probably be run out of the room.  There are so many smart people in the privacy profession, why aren't we challenging each other more, to take a small, wild step outside the privacy-industrial-complex, and actually engage more with the real world?


Anonymous said...

Broadening the debate would be interesting, as long as we never forget that privacy *is* a fundamental human right, and despite the vested interests of many corporations in obtaining richer doissiers on internet users, that right tends to trump most other considerations. "Balance", therefore, should be primarily in the realm of those limited areas where privacy bumps up against other fundamental human rights, and not compromised for commercial interests.

Anonymous said...

If there actually is a "privacy industrial complex" it should be discussing its astonishing lack of effectiveness at increasing anyone's privacy or even slowing down the decrease in privacy.

It sounds like the anti-privacy arguments are already well known to you and your colleagues. The important question is why these fallacious arguments have been so successful at convincing the public and their representatives when they all can be summarized as:
"My interests are more important than anyone's privacy".

Anonymous said...

I revisited this post, noticed the embedded photo, and found it a bit disturbing. I'm not sure its relevance to the discussion, except perhaps to portray privacy advocates as authoritarian or something. But nothing could be further from the truth. I've always said that privacy advocates don't want to tell other people how public or private they can be in their own lives, they just want to preserve the *choices* to retain our privacy in the modern world. But this seems to be at odds with the *data* industrial complex, which wants to make collection of vast troves of highly correlated personal data as frictionless as possible.

Fred von Lohmann said...

Perhaps all the members of the copyright industrial complex should go to the privacy conferences and vice versa! Or, better yet, we should all go to a conference for a completely different industry and report back!

Anonymous said...

Diversity is the answer - to make things interesting. Get a guy from China or Pakistan or India to discuss privacy. It will get interesting.