Nobody fully realised the achievement of Sir Joseph Bazalgette until 70 years after his death. The size of the pipes he specified for London’s sewers was determined by calculating what diameter would handle the average daily flow and then doubling it to allow for natural fluctuation. Having arrived at the optimum diameter this way, Bazalgette arbitrarily redoubled the resulting figure, explaining ‘We’re only going to do this once and there’s always the unforeseen.’ The unforeseen turned out to be high-rise buildings. Without his decision, London’s sewage system would have failed 40 years ago.*
Something of the same foresight seems to have passed down to his descendant Peter Bazalgette. Writing in Prospect magazine last year (http://tinyurl.com/6bm53u), he is one of the few people to warn of the risks to the media if privacy campaigners hold too much sway.
It’s a controversial topic, but important, since hasty legislation could have dire consequences for the survival of newspapers. Already deprived of classified and recruitment advertising by the advent of digital alternatives, print media badly needs to make more money from their many online readers, who of course pay no cover price. Online advertising has little scarcity value, and so the only way you can charge advertisers a premium to appear on your website is by knowing a little about the individual people who are reading it.
Now your instinctive reaction to that is probably the same as anyone else’s — ‘I don’t want anyone to know anything about my online behaviour.’ And, if you’re happy to pay £10 each week for your Spectator and £3 for your Daily Telegraph, you have every right to maintain this purist stance. Most of us, though, need to consider a sensible compromise — a trade-off between our wish for anonymity and a newspaper’s need to make some money. There is a happy middle ground here, for instance, an arrangement which lets advertisers learn plenty about you without actually knowing who you are.
This being Britain, however, the most likely outcome will be some kind of hysteria. And, by a cruel irony, the very journalists who write the scare stories about online privacy may find themselves the first casualty of the clampdown. Then, with the demise of investigative news journalism, civil liberties campaigners may experience something worse than a world where the public has too little privacy — a world where the government has too much.
The attitude to privacy varies enormously from one country to another. Germans are typically near-paranoid, many refusing to complete their census forms; in Finland, by contrast, you can go to a government website and learn your friends’ annual salaries, since they are a matter of public record. I don’t know where I sit between these two extremes, but if the cost of exposing police thuggery and MPs’ greed is for newspaper websites to know that I sometimes buy straw hats online, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.
*Sir Joseph Bazalgette is commemorated with a statue near Hungerford Bridge; his counterpart in Paris was less fortunate. The great Eugène Poubelle achieved an unfortunate immortality by finding his surname adopted as the French word for a dustbin. Later poubelle gave rise to pourriel, by combination with courriel (meaning email); in French un pourriel is sometimes used to describe what we call spam.