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Private property

Celebrities have a right to profit from the exploitation of personal information – and so do you

3 March 2012

2:00 PM

3 March 2012

2:00 PM

Celebrities have a right to profit from the exploitation of personal information – and so do you

Something has been bugging me about the Leveson inquiry, and it’s not a private investigator hired by News International. It’s the pervasive line of defence that you hear when it comes to the invasion of privacy, and with the Sunday Sun rising in the east, it’s worth addressing.

There’s no chance the new Sunday red-top will revive the black arts of its predecessor and indulge in what the Met’s Sue Akers has called the Sun’s ‘culture of illegal payments’. But there is every chance that it will carry one basic assumption over intact. The assumption that celebrities who give interviews, pose for photographs, or in any way make capital of their private lives aren’t entitled to complain when commercial interests make capital of their private lives against their will.

Spoken and unspoken — the most extreme form of the position was given by the magnificent News of the World hack Paul ‘Privacy is for Paedos’ McMullan — is the following basic argument. If you agree to be photographed inside your home with your children in order to promote your perfume, you can’t then object when you’re papped picking the kids up from school. Once you’ve invaded your own privacy, you’re fair game. That’s the way it works: you don’t get to pick and choose.

Too few people, in response to this bullying assertion, are asking the perfectly reasonable question: why not? Why don’t you get to pick and choose? The guiding figure of speech when the subject is discussed is that of a contract — celebrities ‘signed up’, we’re told, to the whole living-in-public ­shebang. But a contract, Faustian or otherwise, is precisely what has not been signed.

If you choose to hold a yard sale one weekend, why should that legitimise someone nicking your telly the following weekend? The difference between a prearranged shoot for Hello! magazine and a Sunday tabloid’s exposé of the difficulties in your marriage is the difference between consensual sex (or, if you insist, prostitution) and rape. We rightly take a dim view of the line that promiscuous women are ‘asking for it’. Does the logic not extend?

The fundamental problem, it seems to me, is that we’re thinking of privacy in the wrong way. We’re thinking of it as an abstract good. At once slightly smitten and slightly contemptuous, we watch folk from off the telly complaining to Leveson and we think: once you’ve made your private life a commodity, it’s your own silly fault if you lose control of it. What makes the private behaviour of ‘ordinary people’ different, runs this line of reasoning, is that it doesn’t enter the marketplace.

The problem with that argument is that it is, simply, balls. The new digital economy is almost entirely based on the commodification of private information. Every time you swipe your supermarket loyalty card, you are exchanging private information — building a detailed record of where and when you shop and what you buy — for tiny amounts of money translated into Clubcard or Nectar points.

On social networking sites, the deal is more intimate than an exchange of marketing data. You pony up private information about your sexuality, your friendships, your movements and your consumer behaviour in exchange for any number of things: fun, convenience, a sense of connectedness, or the chance to play FarmVille. Google, the company which defines this era of the internet, harvests private information incessantly in order to serve targeted ads.

We live in an age where pressure on privacy comes from two directions. There’s the invasive, coercive pressure from state agencies and commercial interests. This we are accustomed to harrumphing about. But there’s also a much greater and less ­attended-to pressure: people invade their own privacy, selectively and voluntarily, all the time. We need a vocabulary to talk about that, and to place it in a moral continuum with the coercive pressures. The vocabulary we need is commercial.

To seek to protect privacy by statute as a transcendental good or a human right is not only the wrong answer: it addresses the wrong question. ‘Privacy’, used as a mass noun, is more or less impossible to legislate — and it is vulnerable to precisely the idea that, like virginity or (in Falstaff’s great soliloquy) honour, once it’s gone it’s gone. So how about, instead, recognising the defining fact of the age and talking about private information as a commodity?

All of our secrets have a monetisable value. Those for whom that value is monetised in OK! magazine for thousands rather than on Facebook for beans are different from the rest of us in degree rather than in kind. Quite some degree, admittedly — Katie Price gives her private life its own ISSN number, publishing a glossy magazine called Katie dedicated to ‘the truth behind the headlines’ and incorporating make-up tips and advice on the way she likes her Rice Krispies. But the point holds. We own our property, and we own our data. Privacy isn’t a metaphysical condition, like safety: it’s a possession that we can choose to do with as we wish.

So why not seek to extend to private information the sort of protections extended to private property; or, at least, extend to private information protections analogous to those extended to private property? I say ‘analogous’ because, of course, the correspondence is not exact: the story of your marriage, for instance, is property held in common; and if your marriage is particularly interesting or particularly unhappy, it may be held in common by a large number of people.

I’m advocating a way of thinking here, rather than a body of regulation. But to strive to think of privacy as a commodity — whatever the practical complications — is to get closer to understanding its behaviour in the economy, and it is to be invited to ask: who owns it, and who is entitled to profit from it. The answer may be you, your wife, your mistress, Ryan Giggs’s sister-in-law or a combination of all four. The answer is very seldom ‘Rebekah Wade’ or ‘Glenn Mulcaire’ or ‘The 3 a.m. Girls’.

The loudest objection to this way of looking at things, I suspect, will be a quasi-moral one. ‘What sort of cynical world do we live in,’ tabloids will wonder aloud, ‘when personal relationships are a commodity, and celebrities can treat the most intimate details of their family lives as just another source of profit?’ Unspoken, of course, is the coda to that sentimental thought: ‘When that’s always been our job…’

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