A recent Open Society Foundations discussion about a decision by the Court of Justice of the European Union asked a challenging question: “Does a right to privacy necessarily lead to censorship on the web?” (http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/privacy-censorship-and-right-be-forgotten-digital-age-20140714_0.pdf).
The court decision would require Google Search to delete links as part of the EU’s
“Right to Be Forgotten.” It is troubling enough on its own merits. But the growth of the Internet raises another question about this fraught relationship: “Does a right to a public necessarily lead to censorship on the web?”
The concern about privacy and censorship has always dominated thinking in the U.S. It reflects a profound and well-founded distrust of secrets. Clearly, politicians, businesses, and even private individuals have shown a propensity to use privacy to hide exploitation or wrong doing in the “public” sphere.
Nobody wants censorship but everyone wants their own privacy.
But the proliferation of media technologies has raised the new problem about “public.” Media growth has flooded the public sphere and civil discourse with “information” little related to the common good. Much of what dominates legacy media and new media alike is manipulative, self-serving, or related to private interests with little relevance to the common good.
The issue was reflected in a comment made by President Barack Obama in his final appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Stewart ribbed Obama about his relationship with “the media.” Obama replied:
“The media is a bunch of different medias. There are some who get on my nerve more than others. I think it gets distracted by shiny objects and doesn’t always focus on the big tough choices and decisions that have to be made,” he said.
New forms of media have empowered new voices—a very good thing. But those voices often speak only to private concerns.
Some are corporate voices advocating their business interests. Some are political voices campaigning for funding or elections. Some are individual voices discussing personal interests. Much of the conversation is about matters of little relevance to the general welfare.
It is all perfectly valid conversation. Private matters reflect individual concerns.
The difficulty is that media structures that once supported public dialog about the general welfare have been overwhelmed by such private concerns.
It is reflected in everything from the explosion of celebrity news and sports coverage in legacy media to explosions of moral outrage on the Internet about very real problems that evaporate as quickly as they emerge with little lasting impact on public policy.
The issue is how to protect mediated forms of civil discourse and meaningful policy conversations among citizens and between citizens and government. It is a question of carving out a “space” for a “public” sphere in a mediated communication system paid for and increasingly dominated by those concerned by matters relevant to the “private” sphere.
Certainly, no one wants to return to a media system controlled by gatekeepers who would decide for everyone what is relevant to the public sphere and what was not. Yet, democracy requires a protected public sphere within the prolific and diversified media environment that has emerged over the last 50 years.
I believe the solution lies in the emerging media architecture we now mix for private and public discourse. It requires a business model for the public sphere that is different from the model used for the private sphere.
That is also the answer to the questions raised by Open Society’s discussion. As long as we mix the public and private into one undifferentiated sphere, censorship is inevitable. However, emerging digital media forms offer the architecture to protect both from censorship.
I will explore some possibilities in my next blog.