Like persistent viruses, some things on the social web just resurface. This week it is a disclaimer that’s making the rounds on social media, where people announce that they hereby declare all their material private, and that any unauthorised use of this material for any commercial or non-consensual purpose is not allowed. The announcement has a semi-legalese tone – or, at least the kind of language that non-lawyers think law uses. It cites some random and pointless official sounding clauses which, apparently, reinforce the claim of the user to absolute privacy and ownership of their content.
Much screen space has been spilt in trying to question, mock and educate the people who put out these notices. It should be common knowledge by now, in our lived experiences of big data, that digital privacy is a battle ground. Most of us, as we click on Terms of Services and accept ‘free’ services for our search, browse, connect and share needs, sign off almost all moral and legal rights to the content that we produce online. Most of us would be lucky if suddenly, our Internet Service Provider (or platform and app of choice), didn’t turn around to claim our first borns and our souls — because we might have unwittingly accepted that clause too, when we clicked on “Accept and Proceed”. And yet, most of us, when it comes to thinking of digital privacy, hold on to a romantic idea of how, if we merely say it loud enough, we can reclaim our right to the information about us.
I am curious about where this notion comes from. Because it is definitely not the digital natives who foster these illusions. This year we have been working with a group of school girls between the ages of eight and 13, to understand how they experience and inhabit their digital spaces. Most of these young girls are not on public social media – they are generally not allowed to be there unless they lie about their ages – but, they are all in possession of smart phones and belong to micro social networks like WhatsApp groups and hangouts, where they connect with the people they know and go to school with. Most of them have never encountered strangers on the web, but their social media is saturated with messages and information from friends, families, colleagues and cohorts.
One of the questions posed to these groups was about the kind of material they produce within their networks. Surprisingly (because of their age group) but predictably (because it is the Internet), almost all of these girls told us about how they experimented with sexting and producing images of themselves that they have shared in these groups. We were wondering if they thought it was safe to do this. And almost all of them looked at us as if we were mad, and said “of course not!”. They talked to us that there is no privacy in the digital world – not even if it is in closed and curated groups. They were well aware that once they put out these images in the world, they will spread and be out of their control. They recounted incidents of how, when things did go terribly wrong in a couple of instances, the interventions from parents, teachers, and in one instance, even law enforcement, were of no help — the images continued to spread. What we thought were exceptional cases of loss of privacy and sexual harassment, turned out to be the status quo for these young girls’ experience of being online. As a 9-year-old, at the end of a focus group discussion said, with a rather chilling effect “it happens to everybody!”.
The younger users of the web, it seems, have no fantasies about their privacy and ownership of information. Through experiences and through shared knowledge, they already know that being online is to be in the public eye of unforgiving algorithms that spread you thin, beyond will and consent, over databases that never forget. They are aware of the mechanics of their actions, even if not the consequences. When we showed these user generated disclaimers of privacy to the young girls, they all laughed and joked about how silly these people were. And yet, the privacy disclaimers continue to be all around us. It is almost as if, the older users of the web are in a space of denial, where they refuse to acknowledge that in the corporatization of the web, we have already been sold. That these performative acts of personal protection are not just redundant but also foolish. However, this denial does help these older users to continue abdicating their responsibility towards holding governments and companies accountable for how they deal with our data. Hence the user seems to see no paradox on putting these disclaimers on their Facebook feeds while signing up for Aadhaar numbers, not recognising that the biggest agents of any breach in their privacy are themselves!
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore