Is Internet Privacy a Contradiction in Terms?

I got a new cell phone this week. It’s one of those big Samsungs that looks and feels like a NASA Mission Control device. I couldn’t even figure out how to turn it on, let alone how to sync my Gmail accounts or add new phone numbers. But I needed to hit the ground running with my shiny, white onboard computing system on Tuesday, the first work day after Labor Day weekend, so I just started checking boxes and hitting “Agree” with no consideration of the consequences. Gotta feed the pig, ya know?

And so do all of the direct marketers who read this fine publication. It’s no secret that the Internet was the best thing that ever happened to them, but it’s the worst thing that ever befell one of the few rights ever to be agreed upon by every nation in the world: the secrecy of correspondence.

In an article in the British publication The Guardian a few weeks ago, Shawn Powers, an assistant professor of communications at Georgia State University, drew a stark portrait of the difference between mail and email. The former is a global institution founded on the sanctity of private correspondence, the latter can exist in its present state only within a secrecy vacuum.

“The modern Internet economy in many ways evolved out of a casual disregard for secrecy and privacy; it is dependent on gathering and analyzing individual user behavior and benefits a handful of western countries and companies,” wrote Powers. “Targeted advertising accounts for the vast majority of Internet revenue. It is a technique incompatible with the principle of secrecy of correspondence.”

When it comes to the issue of privacy, then, a topic covered fairly regularly on this site, the Internet is in direct opposition to one of its chief rivals for direct marketing dollars: The U.S. Postal Service. Indeed, Powers points out, the U.S. postal system was founded in large part to prevent British overlords from casually riffling through people’s letters to root out dissidents. This privacy protection was so valued by politicians and people alike that it worked its way into the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

But despite the hue and cry raised by privacy groups worldwide, Web users like me are so entranced by the pocket screens that give us our (monitored) email, free (platform-linked) videos, and (privately owned) apps that summon us cabs and pizzas, that we cavalierly click “OK” to three-page-long legal agreements. Hell, I don’t care if you know who and where I am and what my credit card number is and what I eat and drink. How are you gonna get me my large pepperoni with artichoke hearts and Malted Milk Balls otherwise?

Powers provides an outline of how global postal privacy accords created the Universal Postal Union (UPU), hailed by Josef Zemp, the head of Swiss Rail and Post, as “the most powerful work for peace which history has ever seen.” As technology advanced, the tenets of the UPU influenced those of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which in 1932 added to its charter a provision to protect the confidentiality of messages across international borders.

“The UPU and ITU,” Powers wrote, “were so integral to international politics that adherence to their provisions were often among the first commitments made by newly established governments.”

So where, Powers asked, did the principle of secrecy of correspondence go as the Internet began to slowly but surely envelop the world? He points a finger, ironically, at the Queen of Private Email Servers, Hillary Clinton. Okay, she can’t bear the full brunt of the blame. After all, she didn’t invent the Internet. That was her husband’s VP, Al Gore. But Powers points to a speech Clinton made as Secretary of State in 2010 on the “Internet-freedom paradigm” in which she described the Internet as a shared, public space. Powers contends this was a deliberate effort on Clinton’s part to link the Internet to the Western legal doctrine that individual rights to privacy are curtailed in public spaces so that authorities can preserve the security of the space.

Which goes to show you two things. One, you can still keep correspondence private on the Internet if you’re a high-ranking cabinet member who can afford to hire State Department employees to maintain private email servers and make those emails disappear at the appropriate time. And two, the guarantee of private correspondence is one thing the U.S. Mail will always have over the Web. Persons convicted of mail theft face up to five years in jail and fines of $250,000. And the Postal Service has a police force.

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