Home / Opinion / Columns /  How we reached this online communication minefield

One of the earliest judgements that looked into whether or not there was such a thing as privacy in private correspondence had involved two of the greatest literary giants of their time, on one hand, and an early inventor of the trashy novel on the other. The case was the final denouement in a long-standing feud that writers Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift had with publisher Edmund Curll. There isn’t enough space in this column for all the gory details and events that led to the final showdown in court. Suffice to say that after a series of increasingly vicious attacks on each other, Edmund Curll got his hands on over 20 years of private correspondence between the two famed writers and published it for all to read.

Never before had a court been called upon to decide on the privacy implications of a new technology. That said, never before had a technology made such radical improvements on the existing state of communications. Thanks to printing technology, what previously took months to manually transcribe now rolled off presses in a matter of hours. As much as this resulted in the widespread dissemination of information, it also made it possible for unscrupulous persons, of the likes of Edmund Curll, to print hundreds of copies of salacious gossip and place it in the hands of people with little effort.

Technology constantly improves the way in which ideas are communicated—the speed with which they are created, the distances they travel and the audiences they reach. As much as each of these advances has improved the overall quality of knowledge in society, every iteration has resulted in progressively greater incursions into our personal space.

The postal system allowed messages to be sent further afield than was previously possible. But even though this allowed people separated by great distances to stay in touch, it increased the likelihood that what they said to one another would fall into the hands of strangers along the way. So serious was this concern that most countries criminalized the act of opening letters entrusted to the postal department by anyone other than its intended recipient.

The telegraph, the next improvement on communication technology, placed even greater stress on privacy. In order to send messages over the wires, telegraph companies had to employ operators to transcribe messages from Morse Code to English. As a result, even though the telegraph ensured that messages reached their intended recipients faster, the technology introduced novel constraints on what could be said, given that the very operation of the system required it to be read several times along the way.

Next came telephones, a technology that made it possible for individuals to speak directly with each other over long distances. In the very early days, entire neighbourhoods had to be connected using a single ‘party line’ that was used simultaneously by a number of families. While your telephone only rang when you were getting a call, it was entirely possible for you to pick up the phone and listen in on someone else’s conversation on that line. Even after individual homes were directly linked with exclusive telephone lines, calls still had to be put through by switchboard operators who could (and did) regularly listen in.

Each time a new technology is introduced to society, the novel features it has to offer are welcomed with enthusiasm. Thanks to this initial euphoria, it takes time for its effects on personal privacy to be felt. But every technology inevitably faces a societal backlash, which is usually from the upper sections of society, people who often have the most to lose if their privacy is infringed. But then, with the passage of some more time, society typically learns to adapt by adjusting the manner in which people communicate to account for constraints imposed by the new technology.

We are currently in the midst of the latest evolution in communication technology. The mobile internet has upended the way we interact, and, for most of us, the initial euphoria has begun to wear thin. Since the internet never forgets, tools like news-feeds, search and algorithmic amplification surface information that most of us would rather had remained buried. Things said over a decade ago in an entirely different context can cause all sorts of embarrassment if dredged up today.

In a recent article, writer Byrne Hobart pointed out that privacy in online communication can never be absolute. The reason we find it hard to safeguard our privacy, Hobart argues, is that “the whole point of communicating is to violate your own privacy in a controlled way".

No matter how carefully we think about what we are posting online before we hit ‘send’, since we are susceptible to the very human failing of statistical bias, chances are that sooner or later, our assessment will turn out to be wrong. Which means that we need to view the very act of engaging in online communication as a risk management exercise that requires us to balance the benefit we hope to gain against the risks we could be exposed to as a result of it.

This realization has already altered the way that many of us communicate, forcing us to be more circumspect about how we engage in conversations online, mindful of the harms that could befall us if we are careless. The vast majority, though, still appear to get caught unawares when an innocuous or offhand remark sparks an uncontrollable conflagration of public response.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and also has a podcast by the name Ex Machina. His Twitter handle is @matthan

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