Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Act V: The Decay of Privacy and the Sprouts of Chinese Democracy

-- By XiyunYang - 04 Mar 2013

Act IV Scene i: Decay

The bodies are strewn, bloodied and accusatory, on the stage. The Fourth Amendment is dead. Our cultural expectations of privacy has metastasized in a body politic fed on social media, reality television, and our own uncontainable ego into something unrecognizable. We long to be watched. We yearn for validation and acceptance. On our Facebook walls and on our blogs, and with complete abandon, we wax poetic about what we ate, where we went, who we saw. What's on our bookshelves and who's in our beds. A surveillance state rises, aided by a bloodthirsty brand of capitalism. But what is the value of privacy we demand from the government when we don't demand it of ourselves and from each other?

I don't know how to answer that question, but we must make something of the corpses on stage. Fertilizer, mulch, methane. Waste not want not. The decay of so grand a right should not be in vain. For this, I would propose a trip to that target of much vitriol, the People's Republic of China.

Act IV Scene ii: China

The PRC, at first glance, is the Orwellian nightmare towards which the United States may be lurching. The government rules the Internet, bugs anything that moves, and gleefully wields cellphones as tracking and recording devices. The average Chinese citizen internalizes this invasion and lives within it: they know of surveillance. In China, there is no duplicitous capitalism fueling the surveillance state. Only one objective exists and under which all others subsume: control. Yet, lives must be lived, romance must be kindled, friendships must be maintained, and cheap shoes need to be bought. In the 21st century, it all must be done online, the CCP be damned.

Act IV Scene iii: Control

The Internet is a slippery beast, and sometimes it runs wild.

Act V Scene i: Life

Early evening, June 2009. Minhang district, a southwest suburb of Shanghai. Apartment buildings sprout in rows, identical, like corn. A thunderous noise. The ground shakes. Block seven of the Lotus Riverside complex has toppled over like a domino, completely intact. National media descends and begins to ask questions about corruption. Nothing comes of it. But all is not lost. Within a week, someone has exposed officials in the local government land expropriation bureau as shareholders of the construction company, including their addresses and national ID numbers on a popular Internet forum. An investigation ensues.

The digital age created a wave of citizen journalism and internet vigilantism in China. It has created the human flesh search engine. All the pieces of personal information floating on the Internet has dragged corrupt conduct into the light of day. If concepts of privacy are contextual, then in China, there is none. Your secrets belong to the state. But for the first time, they also belong to the public.

Act V Scene ii: Growth

The corpse of privacy has fertilized transparency. In a country where princelings rule and corruption is so atomized that no one has clean hands, the boundary between the public, the private, and the political is permeable and opaque. Why shouldn't the Chinese public dig into the private lives of princelings to expose the lavish lifestyle provided for by their corrupt parents? Why shouldn't villagers dig to expose the webs of personal relationships feeding a culture of bribery and fraud? How can the line between the private and the public be drawn at all?

Act V Scene iii: Viscera

The human flesh search engine has been used to expose corruption, but it has also claimed its victims. Vigilantism is judge, jury and executioner in one. Mob rule is the tyranny of the majority, vibrating with hysteria, teetering on a knife's edge above chaos. Yes, anger and power can be co-opted, redirected. Oh, the CCP does try, aided by big data, but neither side has a iron grip on victory. For a culture that has never been governed by its people, there is value in a shared sense of visceral, righteous anger, pouring forth as waves of collective action, even if those actions are nothing more at first than creative Googling (or Baidu-ing). If the difference between the United States and China is the freedom to speak and assemble, that freedom is only exercised when emotions first swell to a breaking point and burst forth in political action.

For this reason, the human flesh search engine is aptly named. It is the ugly, stinking entrails of democracy. Yes, the line between the private and the public must be drawn. In the United States it is drawn by the judges and the legislatures. The representatives of the people. In China, increasingly, aided by the Internet, and for the first time, it is also drawn by the people.

Act VI Scene i: Power

There is great power in anonymity. The leaders of the CCP know it. Privacy advocates in the West know it as well. It is the power of autonomy. In the United States, that power was imbedded in the Fourth Amendment to counteract the great empire of the federal government. In China, that power has never been reserved for the people. It resides in the seat of government. The digital age, by normalizing the culture of living life online, has begun to wrest that power from the powerful. The death of privacy is not being celebrated here. Rather, after death, there must be a way forward, and greater still if it is towards democracy.

Yes, I think this is a powerful line of argument. But the question is whether it leads to a form of the cultural revolution with internet: that is, a form of collective democratic rage that can be co-opted (maybe, from the point of view of whoever is master of the dynasty, must be co-opted) so it can be turned against the forces of disruption. When democracy is expressed as anger, it is particularly subject to being taken over by what since ancient Greece we have called "demagogues."

I have spoken of the problem presented from a perspective external to Chinese society, into which I have grossly inadequate insight. The logic of the CCP Politburo position can be seen clearly from outside, whereas the real meaning of the Net within the parts of the larger Chinese society it touches you can speak about with clarity I do not begin to possess.

I agree with you completely that the space of freedom the Net has opened in that society is necessarily must vaster than the space of freedom the CCP through its activity could close.

I have warned that Big Data changes the nature of that equation. Soon it will be possible for any society's government to mine the Big Data of human activity within its boundaries to exercise levels of individuated social control automatically, on a pervasive, personalized scale, that will "train" people in simple ways to do what they are not even told. More consideration of the "Orwellian" realities and the motives of the state engines that will shape them would be reasonable, also, in considering what may pass through the viscera of the society now being born.


Webs Webs

r4 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:44:39 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM