Pirates and Protecting Personal Privacy (a response)

In response to: http://ericjoycemp.wordpress.com/2010/12/18/pirates-and-protecting-personal-privacy/

As one of the Pirate Party members present for the excellent DEAPPG meeting (thank you!), I’ll try and respond to some of your comments Eric. I will emphasise however that my comments do not necessarily represent anyone else in the Party nor the Party itself 😀

I’m glad you were intrigued by us. I am glad you recognise that we are willing to engage in the debate, and that we do so intelligently rather than dogmatically. Holding a polemical view doesn’t necessitate an aggressive delivery of that message. Despite the name we are a serious political party (a phrase that sometimes seems to become our catchphrase), and by that I mean both that our issues are very serious and we wish to engage with national politics in a serious way.

I am happy to leave aside issues of copyright, because despite what some say we are not a ‘single issue party’, and I’ll try to respond to the 3 things which struck you about our argument.

Impossibility of stopping leaks

Taking a position that it isn’t possible to stop leaks – in response, I believe, to a straight question of ‘is it possible?’ doesn’t necessarily equate to a position on whether leaks are inherently good or bad. It is just a simple recognition of reality. My personal view would probably depend on context to some extent in the same way as the question about lying to and/or misleading Parliament.

If a full complete and truthful answer in Parliament might cause immediate harm (such as confession of an upcoming currency devaluation) then I could accept a misleading answer as long as it was followed as soon as possible by an honest and fully explained apology. If however Parliament was mislead over something that would only cause discomfort or embarrassment (keeping secret an agreement to allow cluster bomb munition on British soil in US) then no apology would suffice for the contempt with which Parliament was treated.

Likewise I would treat leaks the same way. If a leak would cause more immediate harm than good (admittedly difficult to assess at times), with no efforts to mitigate the harm (anonymising names or waiting for a vulnerable period of time to pass) I would likely regard that specific leak as ‘bad’. If however a leak reveals information that ‘is in the public good’ (again, can be hard to assess) even if it might be diplomatically or politically embarrassing, I’d be inclined to consider the leak ‘good’. This fairly arbitrary notion of good or bad doesn’t change whether we can stop it, and it doesn’t necessarily mean it should be legal/illegal to leak.

Arguing strongly for personal privacy

There are very clear conflicts between notions of pure free speech, and the respect of privacy, and I imagine that it is a fine line to legislate. I am reminded of something I read elsewhere once upon a time (regret to not remember where) discussing the outrage in the USA at the idea of their national flag being burnt despite it being legal to do under free speech*. The article discussed the dichotomy of this being a protected free speech while at the same time being abhorred by so many in society. The authors perspective was that the social outrage towards the flag burner was sufficient social punishment for the ‘crime’ and that the law didn’t need to provide further punishment, and thus could preserve free speech.

To my mind this is a way in which personal privacy and how to handle it could be dealt with.

Likewise legislatively there is a very clear difference between trying to criminalise the local neighbourhood gossip poking their nose into everyone’s private business, and having the position as a Government that the state should not intrude into the private lives of citizens by covering every square inch with CCTV cameras, holding DNA databases of innocent people, trying to impose national ID cards as well as integrating government databases with all sorts of personal information about us and then opening it up to everyone and their dog, and the list of government intrusions into our privacy could go on. Yes, we want our private data to be private. Yes, information can be easily leaked. Solution, stop putting all our private data into more and more government databases and start to respect our privacy as individuals.

The important thing to recognise is that it doesn’t matter if I, or you, or anyone else, thinks a leak is good or bad in terms of stopping that leak occurring in the first place. If someone is motivated to leak, they will. What is important, and needs more looking at is how you deal with leaks after the fact.

I would personally advocate in favour of a system where leaks and breaches of personal privacy can be prosecuted, because the law should not just be about what we can or can not enforce, it should also be about what we as society are asking of each other. That is exactly what I see laws as being, our social contract with each other over what we deem acceptable. I accept that leaks can be the right thing to do, I also accept that leaks can be bad, as such we need laws that are capable of prosecuting leakers when in the public good but with wiggle-room to protect whistle-blowers.

The very existence of laws to penalise leakers may be sufficient to stop those who may be inclined to leak frivolously. I personally believe that anyone that sees something bad going on and leaks despite the often harsh penalties of doing so is a hero.

Laws that punish leakers need to be crafted to accept that sometimes the public good trumps secrecy, needs to analyse motives and the intent of the leaker rather than just the embarrassment the leak may cause. Such shades of grey are hard to legislate, but we ought to aspire to manage it. We already have a system that is supposed to look at the public good before prosecuting a legal case against someone, so there is some ability to deal with the shades of grey between wrong/right before something comes to trial. I also have faith in the British public to judge between a good and bad leak.

More than any of this, I would prefer to live in a country where there were no nasty secrets being held back from the public, where the people and Parliament weren’t mislead for political/diplomatic convenience, where there weren’t any secrets that were in the public good to be leaked.

If the state should decide what is kept private

I don’t know that we ‘argued that the state did not have the right to decide what should be kept from the public’. In a sense we the public grant the state the right to make that decision. It is the state that has proven that it doesn’t respect the public to use that power fairly and responsibly. The rights of the state are rights that the public can take back. I think you call this anarchy Eric. I call it democracy.

You also mention Eric that there is a contradiction in the Pirate Party having policies that respect personal privacy while at the same time accepting and admitting that it is easier for information to spread than it is to contain it. There is no contradiction here. Recognition that information can be communicated is not acceptance that all information should be communicated. I think we all probably know people that gossip a little too freely with the private information of others. Gossiping is something we all engage in from time to time, but most people recognise that while gossiping can be irresistible, we’re not actually discussing matters of great intellectual significance, we’re not curing cancer, and we aren’t (no matter how much hot air we give out) sending rockets to the moon.

It is possible to distinguish between private and personal information about a person, and between information about the state, about that activities of government, etc. As to who should make that distinction, I agree with you Eric, it is the state. That is, the people that live in the state, the wider society, and not just those that choose to make the decisions behind closed doors. Governments should by all means have definitions of what they think should be public and secret, but those definitions should be open to society so we can choose if we agree or not. Government should then stick to those definitions and not deceive and manipulate us.

You wrote, Eric, that you put that question to us a number of times and we didn’t answer. I guess there are a number of reasons. Primarily I suspect it was because the discussion we were there to have wasn’t about the distinction between personal private information and state ‘secrets’. We were there to discuss the issue of state ‘secrets’ being put into the public domain and the clear revelation of quite how dirty some of those state secrets are. Those leaks have us question the honesty of those that purport to lead us and the real question was what should states do to deal with the threat of leaks. The answer is that states should behave with honour and dignity and have nothing to fear from such leaks. The secret face of our state should be one we aren’t ashamed to discover.

Of course, another good reason why you might not have been given an answer to your question is that some of us (or maybe just me) are new to that sort of environment and need to take some time to observe and absorb rather than actively participate right off the bat. Some of us might not be natural politicians, and tongue-in-cheek slightly, maybe that’s a good thing.

Just because one Pirate argues that all information will come out, doesn’t make that person (or others in the movement) an anarchist. Rather perhaps just a realist? I’m not sure any of us want to kill the state. As a Party we are trying to enter mainstream politics. Not to kill it from within, but to fix those problems we see. Why did you and your colleagues enter politics? Hopefully for many of you it was because you perceived a problem and wanted to fix it! As a motivation I respect that, even where I may disagree with the perceived problem and solution (though having been a life-long Labour voter maybe not as much disagreement as others might have). Likewise I hope mainstream politics will respect us in the Pirate Party for holding that same willingness to try and right those wrongs we perceive.

You are very right Eric that those ‘with political, commercial … power now have a responsibility to question their own assumptions about information, creativity, communications, [etc]’. You are also right that Pirates need to understand people as well as technology. I worry that there is an implication that you think we don’t. I disagree. Some of us (it pains me to exclude myself) may be young and (happy to include myself) more technology aware than average, but neither of these characteristics should assume a lack of knowledge or experience with the real world. Of course some of us fit stereotypes, but many of us do not. From my reading of what you wrote you are asking us to decide if we like democratic values or regard them as irrelevant. I hope you didn’t mean it that way, but I point once more to us entering the democratic political process, as well as restating that recognition of the inevitability of something does not equate to support of it. We very much want our ideas to be part of the solution. I don’t think that will happen until a lot of the mainstream parties throw away a lot of their perceptions and truly engage with our policies.

*Burning in fact actually being the preferred way to dispose of worn US flags.

Featured image – Would Like To Use Your Current Location some rights reserved by Kai Hendry