The Big Brotherhood

Claims that digital giants have eroded privacy are widespread. But are they encroaching on our freedom too?

Philip Pettit is Professor of Politics and Human Values at Princeton and Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the ANU, Canberra.

This article originally appeared on IAI News and is republished here with permission.

Imagine the position of women in relation to their men in a society where husbands have legal power over their wives: the power, for example, to determine where they may appear in public, who they may associate with, what church they may attend, and so on. And now imagine a woman whose husband dotes on her, as Torvald dotes on Nora in Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, giving her carte blanche: allowing her, in effect, to act as she wills within the range, intuitively, of personal liberty.

Does Nora free enjoy freedom of choice in that domain, thanks to Torvald’s indulgence?

Surely not. Nora can act as she wishes in that range of choice, it is true. But she can only act as she wishes because Torvald is willing to let her act as she wishes. She depends on his will for being able to act as she wills, so that it is his will that is ultimately in charge. Like a horse that is given its head, to invoke an old metaphor, she may enjoy free rein. But it is Torvald who is in the saddle, able to pull back at any point on that rein.

Accept these observations about freedom, and they have many lessons to teach us, not least in the new domain of digital communication.

We all now recognize, as we receive advertising that reflects our past choices, that the companies on which we rely for various services have a means of targeting us individually, a means of keeping tabs on our movements, and a means, in principle, of interfering coercively in our lives. Thus they have the means of exposing us to shame for any embarrassing use of the internet; exposing us to financial restriction—in effect, penalties—for any evidence of carelessness in the use of our funds; and exposing us to governmental surveillance for possibly suspicious activities.

This exposure to the possibility of interference means that in a realm of personal freedom, as we might have thought of it, we are not actually free. We may not suffer any of the penalties to which we are exposed. But, as in the case of Nora and Torvald, the exposure is sufficient in itself to compromise our freedom.

“The existence of the power [of Google and Facebook] is a problem, independently of its exercise. As the benevolence of a despot does not remove the despotism, so it will not remove the power of the big brotherhood.”

We avoid the interference available to our digital providers only insofar as they are willing to be indulgent. Thus we depend on their goodwill, as Nora depends on the goodwill of Torvald, for escaping such interference. We do not enjoy their non-interference or restraint as a matter of robust, enforceable right, as freedom properly requires. We enjoy it only contingently on their willingness to grant it.

Does it matter that there are a number of companies in operation, not just a monopoly firm, and that we can exercise a power of exit by leaving one and joining another? No, it does not. None of the enterprises offers us personal security against their capacity to target us. Nor have any of them got an incentive to provide such security, since their ability to target is essential for attracting commercial advertising.

True, there is no single company to fit a role like that of George Orwell’s Big Brother. But together, the companies constitute a big brotherhood. Telling us that we have the ability to move between those companies would be like telling Nora, if divorce had been possible in the world of Ibsen’s play, that she could always exit the relationship with Torvald in favor of life under the power of a different husband.

Can we console ourselves that none of these companies has a likely incentive to exercise their power of interference against us, at least on many fronts? Not really. Many fronts are not all fronts, and a likely incentive is not a stable incentive. Besides, the existence of the power is a problem, independently of its exercise. As the benevolence of a despot does not remove the despotism— in the case of Torvald as well as in the case of a public ruler—so it will not remove the power of the big brotherhood.

But can we console ourselves that as a matter of fact we do not act in a way that might trigger the sorts of penalties available to the brothers? We do not make embarrassing choices, we do not squander our funds, we do not make suspicious contacts? No, we cannot.

One reason is that while it might be commendable not to act in a way that would expose us to penalty, it does not mean that it is appropriate in a free society to be forced to act commendably. Being forced to be virtuous, if virtue is involved, is not good social policy. And it is not good for the soul either. Seeking to buttress virtue with the threat of repercussions may replace virtue with a mean habit of caution and self-censorship.

The second reason why we cannot console ourselves that we are conforming types, unlikely to trigger any penalties, is that mistakes are always possible. Even if we play safe in a cautionary extreme, we may still end up being mistakenly identified and, in effect, indicted. As with any powerful engine of regulation, the digital regime represents a problem for the complying and the non-complying alike.

That regime has brought the CCTV into our homes and into our offices. And this is to a much more worrying effect than the CCTV on our streets. The digital CCTV is locked onto us individually; the regular CCTV is locked onto no one in particular. The digital CCTV keeps tabs on us, making it possible to track any of our behavior; the regular CCTV keeps tabs on behavior, in particular criminal behavior, making it possible only in the wake of such behavior to track the agents responsible.

The digital challenge is sometimes cast as an issue of privacy. But that understates the problem, as we can now see. We suffer a loss of privacy whenever we are exposed to the eyes of others in a presumptively personal domain, even if those ‘others’ have no power over us as a result of what they see. What we suffer in relation to the big brotherhood is not just exposure to an intrusive eye, but exposure to an eye that is powerful as well as intrusive. This exposure compromises our privacy, to be sure, but it also compromises our freedom.


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