Friday, August 25, 2017

I'm on a party line

There have been headlines lately about new FCC regulations allowing internet service providers to sell information about what sites you visit.  From the summary I read in The Verge, which looks well put together and overall plausible, the situation is a bit more complicated than that, but certainly ISPs have access to quite a bit of information about what sites a particular IP address under their management connects to, and they have to have access to that information in order to provide good service.

I'm not going to offer an opinion here on whether this is good, bad, indifferent or some combination.  Instead I wanted to take a look at privacy in general.

If you live in a house with separate rooms with doors that close and may even lock, it's easy to think of having a room of one's own as the natural state of things, but that's not universally the case.  There are plenty of examples of people sharing space, whether in a one-room house or a portable structure such as a tent, yurt or tipi.  Or think of an un-air-conditioned apartment block in summer.  If everyone's window is open onto the same courtyard, privacy is going to be a bit limited.  Enhanced privacy isn't the most obvious benefit of air conditioning, but it would certainly appear to be one.

Even if doors and windows can close, living in a small community, particularly one that has to be fairly self-sufficient, means getting to know more than one might care to about one's neighbors, and having them know details about one's own life.  Arguably this is actually the normal state of things.  Urbanization is a fairly recent phenomenon in human history.

Again, not saying any of this is good or bad, just that privacy is not necessarily something that we once had, but lost once technology came along.

For that matter, and back at the title, in the earlier days of telephony, many customers had a party line arrangement, meaning that a number of households shared the same physical phone line.  This meant that if someone else was making a call and you picked up your phone, you would hear them talking, at which point you might hang up and try again later, or perhaps ask them if they would be done soon ... or just listen in for a while.

Even placing a call meant, at least in some cases, calling an operator and telling them whom you wanted to call, so they could patch the call through -- literally using a patch cord.  That process was eventually automated, but the phone company still needed to keep records, at least of long-distance calls, in order to bill for them.  Those records could be subpoenaed in the course of criminal investigations and in any case were available to at least some company employees.

People seemed largely OK with all this, perhaps because the convenience of the telephone outweighed the lack of privacy, perhaps because people figured out ways of minimizing the intrusion (some interesting game theory/economics there), and probably for other reasons.

We're also social animals.  To some extent we want to share things about ourselves and have others share with us.  It's not clear to me whether social media have amplified this kind of behavior so much as reflected it.

What seems different about modern technological privacy is that the people with access to one's private information are strangers with their own incentives and plans.  In a small, tight-knit community information flows both ways.  "Everybody knows everything about everybody."  With a 20th-century phone company or a 21st-century ISP this isn't the case, and generally the entity in question is in business to make money.

One can argue that such businesses have a strong incentive to respect their customer's privacy on the grounds that failing to respect it would be bad for business, but that doesn't always seem particularly comforting.  On the other hand, the basic issues are clearly older than the internet, so at least we've had some time to work them out.  I could have added 19th-century telegraph companies or maybe even 18th-century messenger services to the paragraph above.

I think the problem decreases as you go back in time, since communicating via commercial services run by strangers becomes less pervasive, but the telephone was a pretty integral part of 20th-century life, particularly in the second half.  It's not clear to me how much more integral the net is.  I'm sure it is to some extent, but not how much.

I honestly don't know what to conclude from all that, but I did at least want to offer the perspective that, as in other cases, the internet doesn't necessarily change everything.  Some things, almost certainly, but the real fun lies in figuring out exactly what.

No comments: