Thursday November 1, 2012
Digital privacy divide
By NIKI CHEONG
Technology is fuelling the debate over what is public, and what is private.
BARELY a fortnight ago, two people made the headlines both in Malaysia and across the causeway in Singapore. Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee came under the spotlight when their blog, featuring videos of them having sex, gained mainstream attention.
I’m not here to discuss the morality issues of the actions of these two young adults. Many people have already stated their opinions through media channels and online social networks.
The couple also had a chance to respond to critics, making several media appearances and even releasing a Q&A video response.
What is interesting about this incident, from a digital culture perspective, is in the way Lee responded in an interview.
She said: “I see nothing wrong in posting the nude pictures and videos of our sexual relationship on the Internet. It was intended for the world to see how much we love each other.”
Her statement alludes to the very public nature of online platforms, which for many is a major issue of concern when it comes to the use of Internet and social networking sites in particular.
One site that has been heavily criticised for its interpretation of what constitutes public information is Facebook.
This was especially so after its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in an interview in 2010, defended the site’s move to change the privacy settings of its then 350 million users, suggesting that the current “social norm” is that things are less private.
The evolution of the Internet over the past 15 years facilitated this change. When the World Wide Web caught on back in the mid-90s, people started finding ways to post information about themselves online.
Before that, conversations were already happening via email and bulletin boards. But the Web meant that you could have your own public site and write whatever you wanted on it.
Free sites such as Geocities and Tripod emerged, offering to host personal web pages. Then blogs started becoming all the rage, and Internet users found that they did not need to replace old web pages with new ones.
Blogs would let them add fresh content while at the same time archive all their old information on the very same site.
It is no surprise then that sites which made it easier for you to talk about yourself – and with design templates, too – emerged. Enter the world of social networking where sites like Friendster and MySpace dominated much of the mid-noughties, allowing you to not only talk about yourself, but connect with other people – friends and strangers alike – to share your life with.
So when Zuckerberg talks about how privacy has changed, he is not entirely wrong. Whether or not this justifies his company’s decision to meddle with the personal accounts of so many users is still being debated but the fact is that digital technology has changed the way in which people view what is public and what is private.
Which is why it’s interesting that Lee went on to say, “I cannot understand why people have to make so much fuss about this. It is our private affair.”
That she would talk about both being public in wanting to share her life with the world, yet consider that part of her life private, shows how fluid her understanding of privacy is. It is hard to imagine that she is alone in this way of thinking.
No doubt this viewpoint is increasingly common – we just need to look at the public uproar at Facebook’s privacy policies, yet a billion people today still share personal information on the site.
The fact is that the nature of “private” and “public” have always been subjective, even before the emergence of networked environments.
Often, our understanding of the two is linked to context and self-expression, the way we may divulge a particular bit of information to a confidante, but will deem the very same tidbit not for the consumption of others.
The same can be said of our online identities.
The videos were created by two people who were just sharing it with a limited audience who, according to Lee, were “mostly Westerners” as “a form of art” but it went viral when online site Gutterpost picked up on it. This led to the videos being taken out of the context of its creators’ intentions.
It is, however, hard to blame people, particularly their critics, from looking at it differently. After all, in isolation, these videos don’t look very different from the millions of others which appear on various video sites on the Internet.
And isn’t this an age in which personalities like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian got their big breaks from the “release” of sex tapes?
The difference, however, was that both celebrities claimed the release of the tapes was unauthorised – and therefore, an invasion of their privacy.
Tan and Lee’s intentions were different, although what they did is not exactly new. With the advent of recording technology – from digital cameras to webcams to smartphones – millions around the world are creating such videos and sharing them online on a daily basis.
But the issue of privacy in digital culture is not just about how each person understands and perceives it.
Digital technologies are also making it much easier for people to breach those private spaces.
A case in point is the 2008 scandal involving sex photos by Hong Kong star Edison Chen, who had sent his laptop containing said pictures for repair, only to have them downloaded and distributed.
In this case, as with Hilton and Kardashian, you don’t have to do the uploading yourself – if someone gets access, they might do it for you.
It just goes to show that if you really want something to remain private, keep it off the Internet or better still, don’t put it in any digital form.
As for the issue of “private” and “public”, some people’s understanding of the former has no doubt changed in recent years but as can be seen from the backlash Tan and Lee received, society still has sharply different views on the latter.
How our acceptance of what is and isn’t public evolves as we go on with our networked lives, however, remains to be seen.
> Niki Cheong is currently based in London and has just completed his MA in Digital Culture and Society at King’s College London.