The Death of Privacy and the Making of a Saviour

Fellow blogger and good friend Jillian C. York, of the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and writer at Global Voices Online, recently wrote a piece for Al Jazeera English Online highlighting the seemingly political move by TIME in their decision to name Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg Person of the Year over the perhaps most obvious choice, Julian Assange (or, Wikileaks, as traditionally inanimate entities have been named POTY before).

York discusses that while TIME has chosen less than lovable and politically contentious individuals in the past (see: Hitler), it is a bit surprising that the magazine would choose someone whose influence this past year, in particular, has been isolated to a movie and increased encroachment on client privacy as well as the repercussions of this on non-Western Facebook users:

There is certainly plenty of criticism to levy at TIME’s choice of Zuckerberg. For starters, and despite Facebook’s high numbers around the globe, Zuckerberg’s attitudes toward how people should be using Facebook are often Western-centric at best, dangerous for users at worst.

Take, for example, the platform’s policy that users must sign up with their real names, a policy that’s clearly a result of Zuckerberg’s idea that having more than one identity is “an example of a lack of integrity”.

That policy might work fine for some users, but for others, particularly those living under authoritarian regimes, such “transparency,” as Zuckerberg might call it, can be life-threatening.  And yet, most of the world still wants to use Facebook: to connect with friends and loved ones, and increasingly, for activism.

Still, some Zuckerberg-designed policies are especially threatening to activists. Just ask the moderators of an Egyptian anti-torture group hosted on Facebook: Two weeks ago, their 400,000-strong group was booted from the platform because its administrator was using a pseudonym.

Other issues with the social networking site affect a larger swath of users, such as the October 2010 revelation that some of the site’s third-party applications were violating Facebook’s terms by sharing information with advertisers that could be used to identify individual users, or the brouhaha that happened earlier this year when Facebook changed users’ default privacy settings.

York goes onto point out exactly why Assange should have received the what-I-thought-was-no-longer-really-relevant title:

Assange is undoubtedly the man of the moment, and in a sense, the whole year; though WikiLeaks’ latest release of Embassy cables has attracted a swarm of media attention, earlier releases of the Iraqi Collateral Murder video and the Afghan war logs made a huge public impact.

While I agree with York’s basic assertion, I cannot help but disagree with the choice of Assange. Assange is not Wikileaks. He is heavily involved and has become the face for this otherwise rather anonymous and presumably fluid and widespread organization, but he is not Wikileaks. Often I have heard disdain for Assange on the basis of his apparent ‘egoism’ and his ‘lust for fame.’ This, especially in light of recent leaks, has always confounded me. The honour of making Wikileaks, Assange and Assange ,Wikileaks has been done by virtue of our doing. Assange had always been, for me personally, a spokesperson – he was not the one leaking the information. He was not gathering the information. He was just letting the world know what this four-year old organization wanted, was doing and where it saw itself in the course of history and international relations and governance.

Assange was, is, our link to a source of transparency. A tangible link; one with interesting hairstyle choices and allegedly questionable sexual practices.

Yet, the recent leaks, all in the name to kill Big Brother, have made us assign to Assange the title of saviour. In doing so, Wikileaks itself has capitalized on the image created by keen and obsessed onlookers who have been relentlessly waiting for each and every leak; by a media obsessed with illustrating Assange as the model anarchist, leading a legion of internet delinquent revolutions and by our governments who, in an attempt to destroy an organization forcibly making their actions public, have tried to place the blame and the punishment on the shoulders of one man. We have been searching for V, and now his face is plastered  over some of the wallpapers offered on Wikileaks’ website.

And are we, those caught between all of this as everyday onlookers and citizens, so wrong to want a saviour in the face of government oppression, deceit and false transparency?

The person of the year should have been Privacy, as it enters the very last years of its life. We have always been taught to fear a world resonant of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Huxley’s Brave New World. The truth of our present and our future is somewhere in between. The privacy of the everyday man and woman has been in the process of being destroyed for decades. Now, with the democratization of information to an extent and at a level unwitnessed by humankind ever in its long history, governments also face the very same danger they themselves inflict on their ‘subjects.’ Zuckerberg and Wikileaks (i.e. Assange, apparently) are mere pawns (at most, catalysts) in a culture of such unbound privacy, created beyond our own control.

Our privacy is being taken from us and we are willingly allowing for this to happen; gleefully even at times.

We are beyond the point of no return.

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