Privacy online “The future must not involve a kind of digital isolation”

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger | Photo (detail): © VMS

Anyone who discloses their personal data on the Internet must assume that these details will be stored and possibly analysed. The possibility of total surveillance offered by the Internet conflicts with the requirement for “informational self-determination”, i.e. the right of an individual to decide what information about himself should be communicated to others and under what circumstances. But is it in fact possible to enforce people’s right to privacy online? An Interview with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger.

Professor Mayer-Schönberger, let us begin with a fundamental question: is the protection of privacy a necessary prerequisite if a democracy is to function properly?

Yes, for without freedom of action and freedom of thought we humans lose that which makes us human.

What is the situation when it comes to our privacy on the Internet?

Just like in real life, we rely on our counterparts on the Internet respecting our desire for privacy. In contrast to the analogue world, however, it is easy to record and communicate information on the Internet without the other person even realizing it. The hope that data can be converted into value – be it of an economic or personal nature – coupled with the low costs of storing digital data means that more and more of our online counterparts record and store data from and about us. Thus the remaining islands of privacy on the Internet shrink, and only few new islands appear.

Defending basic rights

The frenzied acquisition of data on the Internet continues relentlessly. How can an individual’s right to informational self-determination be preserved in view of the “Internet of Things”, that is to say when everyday objects record, combine and disclose my data without my knowledge? Informational self-determination is based on the ideal of the individual deciding for himself which data he allows others to use for which purposes. This ideal is no longer practicable in the interconnected and data-based world of tomorrow, and thus requires additional reinforcement. This must be achieved by imposing stricter obligations on those who process our personal data.

How would this be done?

In real life too there are criminals who violate the rules of society and – hopefully – are ultimately held accountable for their actions. What is important is that it should be possible to efficiently enforce the law, and this is precisely what is not always the case on the Internet.

But how can law be efficiently enforced on the Internet? Law applies on a national level, yet the Internet is global.

The global nature of the Internet does not fundamentally preclude the enforcement of national law. The telephone network is also global, yet we would never consider having a detailed discussion of how a particular legal framework might be efficiently imposed on the global telephone network. The global dimension of the network is relevant only if data are transported across national borders and if the law which applies in the country of one of the communication partners is quite different to that which applies in the country of the other partner. Thus I am not certain whether we really need anything other than perhaps more resolute state intervention in some cases when it comes to defending the key basic rights of its citizens online.

The balance between remembering and forgetting

To all intents and purposes, users have lost control of their data on the Internet. You have now proposed that there should be an Internet that is capable of forgetting. In other words, an Internet in which data are destroyed after a certain period of time that is defined by users themselves. To what extent does the destruction of data constitute one possible means of retaining control of them?

Making it easier to forget again and teaching our digital tools how to do this may go some way to restoring the balance between remembering and forgetting. It represents only one means of retaining control of our data, however. What is more, it is not perfect – though it does not need to be, either. Once a website is no longer listed on the first few pages of Google search results, it is as good as forgotten, even if it still exists. In other words, search engines play an extremely important role here.

Most companies offering free services on the Internet have no interest in ensuring that the data of their users are destroyed, for these data are their business. Who should enforce such a network which no longer stores data indefinitely?

For one thing, companies do have an interest in forgetting information that has become irrelevant, for such information merely distorts their analyses. Ultimately, however, it is of course society’s responsibility to agree on clear rules for permissible behaviour – just as it is in the areas of environmental protection, consumer protection, healthcare and provision for old age – and the job of the state to ensure that these rules are also enforced.

In view of the widespread spying that takes place online and that has now come to light, many critics call upon people to withdraw from the Internet. How would you respond to these critics?

I would say that a total renouncement of digital tools would also entail considerable costs and considerable limitations, which would also hugely reduce the wealth of information that we have been able to experience as a result of the Internet. The future, in other words, must not involve a kind of digital isolation; instead, the framework conditions for information flows on the Internet must be designed in a socially responsible manner and with a proper understanding of the technology.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, born in Austria in 1966, is the Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at the University of Oxford. While still studying law in Salzburg, Cambridge and Harvard, he founded Ikarus Software in 1986, a company whose “Virus Utilities” software became Austria’s best-selling software product. Before moving to the Internet Institute in Oxford, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger spent ten years teaching at the Kennedy School of Government in Harvard. He has published numerous articles and books, including Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton University Press, 2009). His most recent publication is Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think (John Murray, 2013).