Privacy, the media and the internet

What is a MySpace page but a personal version of a spread in Hello! magazine?

The Guardian columnist Zoe Williams is one of my all-time favourite writers (regardless of what people say about her using brackets too much). So it was with excitement that I saw her featured in a recent pamphlet produced by Demos. The collection of essays, called UK Confidential, explores the challenges that a networked, open society poses to personal privacy. I am always thrilled when a writer I respect dips a toe into techno-politics. So, it was disappointing to realise that I disagreed with almost everything she said.

The central theme of Williams's essay, titled "Whose Privacy Is It Anyway?", is that our fears for our privacy are unfounded and irrational. She puts forward the idea that our obsession with privacy revolves around our desire to ape celebrities. But a look at the activity of young people online is enough to challenge this thesis.

Because it is the exhibitionism, not the candour, of celebrities that, it appears to me, we wish to buy into. What is a MySpace page but a personal version of a spread in Hello! magazine? And, increasingly, our efforts at exposure are just as manicured: as our media savvy is informed by the trials of those who really live their lives in the spotlight, we become our own public relations entourage, checking the messages that enter the world about us against a brand or self-image we wish to promote.

Such micro-celebrity drives the internet economy. Attention, however fleeting, is the currency of the web. If old media used to sell ad space around Catherine Zeta-Jones's wedding photos, new media can profitably sell ad space around your wedding photos.

In more hopeful moods, I imagine that the effect this will have on human dignity may well be a positive one. In 40 years' time, when you can view the Bebo profiles of our Prime Minister, the leader of the opposition - even the head of state - as they were aged 18, shame, vilification and exclusion, what Williams calls "those age-old tools of sub-legislative censure", will look like blunt instruments indeed. And tolerance and pluralism might really start to mean something.

All this doesn't mean we shouldn't worry about privacy. Williams rightly divides privacy into categories, and cultural privacy - privacy from "the public" - is only one such category. Privacy vis-à-vis the government - privacy from surveillance - is quite another. Williams is dismissive here: "Daunted by the surveillance possibilities of modern technology, we forget how many surveillance possibilities our nearest and dearest used to have just by opening their curtains."

But, much as the linear street has been replaced by the spidery social network, so new technology has also introduced the panopticon of total surveillance by the state. In this sense, our privacy fears are not just well founded, they require urgent action.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Bobby and Barack