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Privacy and Publicity on the Internet

Internet World

James’ post on BoingBoing about the ‘ascendancy of the non-private person’ reminded me of something I have heard in my first seminars at the university. The political question of the difference between the private person and the person in public life, being the same one in reality. The topic of this small piece of text shall be the explanation of blurring effects between the private and the public aspects of people while using the Internet.

Let us take an example from real life. You are a politician in public life but after 8pm you are just a loving father and caring husband. A lot of people meeting you after 8pm will still see you as a politician and might try to argue with you about some policies you supported. Normally, you would respond to their questions because it is better for your public relations. You would not have to because you are not at work anymore, consequently not a politician but a private person. This example is already very blurred but very specific. Other people who cannot be recognized by their face by other people will still have their private life when they are at home or out for party with their friends. Their public life is between 8am and 5pm when they are at work.

How does the Internet change the thin line between privacy and public? In order to answer this question we have to find out what the link between people and their private/ public life is.

First of all, there is facial recognition. I cannot recognize the guy who tries to sell me ISP contracts because I have never seen him, neither can I remember his name if has ever mentioned the real one. Thus, if he wants to stay private, he just should not wear a shirt which says: hey I am your ISP contract-selling guy, working for xyz.

Furthermore, communication is an important issue. If you only have the landline office phone number you will only be able to reach the guy you try to reach in his office hours. This changes if you manage to get his office mobile number, private mobile number or even private landline number. Thus, you can reach him not only in the office but also at home and on his way.

Lastly, it is all about information. If you want to reach someone in private while you only have to do with him in public, you can try to search information about him. The more information you have about someone, even though you do not know his face, the easier it is to identify and find him in order to bridge the gap between publicity and privacy.

Even though my point may be obvious after this short explanation let me illustrate it with two short examples. In the age before the Internet:

You know by face only people who are in television (e.g. important people), you get information about people only by reading newspapers, listening to radio or talking to your neighbors which just helps you with information about important people and neighbors. Private numbers are only available from the phone companies if the people who are concerned did not ask to get their numbers wiped out the phone book. Public numbers are only available for institutions, important people or after talking hours convincing people to give you the right number.

Today you know a lot of people by their face just because of social networking, search engines or something else. You can crawl the whole Internet for information and find more information about not so important people. Same with communication media, plus the email addresses which are accessible everywhere, at home and at work.

Consequently, the line gets blurred from both sides. The people who take their work at home e.g. just by checking emails as well as people who try to find information about someone to reach him while he is considered to be in private. Furthermore, people upload information, videos and pictures to the Internet, for example social networking sites. Thus, there is no much privacy left for a lot of people. We are all public, even though we do not want to be. Regarding the pictures some people in my facebook friend list do upload, some people have more privacy left, some less.

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