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The fuss over online privacy

Earlier this week the Court of Justice of the European Union made a ruling that queers the online pitch somewhat. It stood up for an individuals’ ‘right to be forgotten,’ as the global press has been calling the ruling.

The court said that Google must comply with the EU Data Protection Directive even if the data processing happens in other countries. Google will therefore have to remove links when requested by individuals. Especially if the links contain inaccurate or illegally acquired information. The practicalities of how this can be done when someone types up information on say Vanita Kohli-Khandekar and that information is inaccurate, is a mystery as yet.


Cyberspace segregation: The only way privacy is possible online is if a line is drawn between public and private while sharing information. Pic/thinkstock

The ruling has created the usual hyperventilating on online privacy and our right to it. Considering the alacrity with which we comment, share pictures, display our personal, political and other views on Facebook or Twitter or whatever else we are on, does any discussion on privacy matter? The moment we sign on to these services, we agree to cookies coming onto our system, we agree to be tracked and ruled by little pieces of software.

We then put our childrens or our pictures or personal information on a server which could be in the USA or South Africa or somewhere else in the world. Whatever is put out there is out of heads and somewhere in cyberspace, gone. It is like the spoken word — once it is out, it cannot be taken back. What the European ruling does is ask Google to help you take back your spoken word or a deed you did, long after the incident.

There is nothing wrong with sharing personal stuff online and being embarrassed about it. Just like there is nothing wrong with making a mistake and learning from it. But when you make a mistake in the physical word, do you expect you parents or friends to undo it for you? Maybe if you are a rich brat who knocked someone down with car you do.

But most of us don’t. Why then do we want a company that aggregates everything online to remove links to stuff we feel embarrassed about or which gives dated information about us?

One could debate the specific merits of the Spanish case that brought about this ruling, but it is the false notion of privacy that needs to be tackled because the net is not quite the utopia we would like to believe it to be.

It is dominated globally by four large corporations — Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. As netizens we are dangerously dependent on four companies when we want to hear a song, buy a film, talk to friends or just decide what phone. Yet there is this romantic ideal that the net is the beacon of all things good in this world.

The idea that regulators are stealing the freedom that the Internet offers by cracking down on online firms is very popular. The fact is regulators are trying to protect us from sharing everything about ourselves with a server in some foreign country controlled by some corporation.

The net’s anonymity lulls most people into a false sense of security. But it also acts as a beacon for the sickos of the world. Have you noticed that the people who post the worst, most malicious comments never give their name, religious identities or location. If somebody said the same rude things they say online, to someone in a public place or a home, they would get beaten up or be thrown in jail. Many of the sickos are probably mice in the physical world – shy, unable to speak for themselves. But bring them a smartphone or a laptop and they become tigers strutting their stuff and mauling anyone, they see, including children. The fact that we are willing to put our personal lives online, inspite of this knowledge, says something of our need to exhibit. Why then the fig leaf of privacy?

The only way online privacy is possible is by using the rules of behaviour which govern the offline world. Be careful of what you say in front of strangers, don’t shout out your feelings in a public place, don’t display your children in front of the world. If you can draw the line between private and public offline, then why not learn to draw it online too. Why ask Google or some court in Europe to draw it for you?

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik

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