After Vikileaks, we can protect privacy, or outgrow it

How the Facebook generation is handing the Earth over to the meek

Dave Makes/Flickr

“We need to talk about your Facebook photos,” one of my supervisors told me, soon after I started working on Parliament Hill. “There are a bunch of you in drag. You need to take them down.”

She was right. As an undergraduate, I had been a member of an old-fashioned theatre troupe. Our show had ended one year with the entire all-male cast—myself included—in pink three-inch heels, doing high-kicks, dressed as sequined swans.

There are pictures. Lots of them. I saw no problem, but my new boss did. “Do you really want to see yourself in makeup on some Conservative blog?” she asked.

The photos did not survive the afternoon. Yet a crucial question remains: now that the Internet has enabled anonymity and cut the cost of information to nearly nil, are we past the point of protecting our privacy?

When a nameless Twitter user—now revealed to have been a Liberal staffer—published the sordid details of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’ divorce, the details were enough to make even the most iron-stomached partisan wince. Is this the new normal? Because if marital misconduct is now fair game, heaven knows how low we will go.

In the United States, you can be sued for “[giving] publicity to a matter concerning the private life of another.” In Canada, this is not necessarily so. Some provinces have laws that allow lawsuits for privacy violations. Most do not, and courts have been reluctant to go where legislatures have not gone before.

That may be changing. Last month, in a unanimous decision, the Ontario Court of Appeal recognized “a right of action for intrusion upon seclusion”—in other words, a legal claim for invasion of privacy—in part because “technological change poses a novel threat to a right of privacy.” Not everything is protected under the ruling, however; only “deliberate and significant” intrusions “into matters such as one’s financial or health records, sexual practices and orientation, employment, diary or private correspondence,” can give rise to a lawsuit.

Vic Toews is probably not protected, either. As a “public figure,” the law affords him less protection than a private citizen, and for good reason: politicians seek public attention, and it would be absurd—and a breach of the freedom of expression—to let them sue for bad press. Likewise, in every province whose privacy laws permit lawsuits, those same laws protect “fair comment on a matter of public interest.” In light of the federal government’s proposed new online surveillance legislation, “VikiLeaks” might very well fall into this “fair comment” exception.

But what about private citizens, who never seek the spotlight? You may be less private than you think. Divorce, mortgage, bankruptcy, and property records are all public by law. Everything you post on the internet is public by choice. Last year, in a lawsuit in California, Facebook argued that its users “are ‘public figures’ to their friends.” The court agreed.

If you are under the age of 30, none of this is news. We live our lives in broad daylight, warned by our parents and the press that every Facebook status is subject to scrutiny; entire websites are now devoted to publishing particularly idiotic things that people post. Every young person knows that if you sign up for Facebook and have at least one friend with a camera, you are likely to end up “tagged” more often then you would like. Some opt-out. Most do not. The result: our future leaders will be completely dull, having lived lives devoid of indiscretion—or drag. The meek, at long last, shall inherit.

Will we welcome this tyranny of the teetotalling? Probably not. More likely, we will reach a point of mutually assured destruction, where everyone will have so much dirt on everyone else that no one will be able to reveal anything about anybody without risking retaliation. We will have outgrown our privacy, and thus guaranteed it: faced with the prospect of total carnage, the so-called “Facebook generation” will have none at all.

Perhaps this is too optimistic. Perhaps we do need tougher laws to protect our private lives. We can remove names from public records. We can allow lawsuits for invasions of privacy. We can delete and un-tag our Facebook photos, just to be safe. But we ultimately cannot legislate our expectations—only ask each other to raise them. In the end, the only thing standing between us and “post,” “send,” or “like” is ourselves.

Adam Goldenberg is a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School. He was chief speechwriter to Michael Ignatieff and served as a senior aide in the McGuinty government.




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After Vikileaks, we can protect privacy, or outgrow it

  1. Some good ideas but I disagree with the conclusion that “our future leaders will be completely dull, having lived lives devoid of indiscretion”. You seem to be saying that because we know it will be shared, we won’t dress up in drag to begin with.
    I’d argue, as a member of the “facebook generation”, the opposite. We know it will be shared. Who cares? We are even more free now to live lives of indiscretion, because societies norms are coming down to reality.
    I think that in a couple years, when someone’s boss asks if they really want to see themselves dressed up in drag on a conservative blog, their response will be more along the lines of, “why the the hell would a conservative blog want to post it?”. And that they’ll be right.

    • It’ll take more than a couple years. It’ll take the dying out of every generation ahead of yours — that is, unless you guys start voting en masse.

      So long as you let older folks control the politics, those questions will keep coming up because they’ll still matter.

  2. But where is the privacy breach? At law, there simply is none. If Vic doesn’t like the details, he can blame the affiants, not Twitter.

  3. “… you are likely to end up “tagged” more often THEN you would like.” ? It’s never what we know, like everything in our nepotistic society, it’s who you know…

    I do, however, agree with much of your opinion and that, “…we do need tougher laws to protect our private lives.” The Cons have gone Orwellian in their support of the corporate dictators, and society will one day wish that it was as soft and genteel as 1984… I’m glad that I’m over 50!

  4. Privacy is a relatively recent concept.

    From the caves to the serf’s huts to sleeping in front of the fire in the great hall people shared their lives without a second thought. They had animals living with them too.

    Pioneer homes were often one-room.  Today’s average suburban home isn’t even that private, although it’s certainly better in terms of physical privacy.

    So now people go online and share the most intimate details of their lives, loves and finances.

    We’re a social species, and apparently don’t think twice about it

  5. I for one do not submit to the idea of social networking sites, short of business use, and I’m 23. 

    My concern is not that of an individual defaming me, but larger corporations keeping tabs on what I like, and marketing towards my now generated demographic. 

    While I believe laws may come into effect, protecting individuals rights and freedoms, there wont be any enforced to prevent big business from manipulating the unmentioned loophole. 

    Rupert Murdochs phone taps, German skype call hacking, Chinese infiltration into Canadian government records, wikileaks sources being silenced…..

    Is this really the end to privacy and anonymity, or the beginning of something much, much worse….

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