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Successful failure: what Foucault can teach us about privacy self-management in a world of Facebook and big data

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The “privacy paradox” refers to the discrepancy between the concern individuals express for their privacy and the apparently low value they actually assign to it when they readily trade personal information for low-value goods online. In this paper, I argue that the privacy paradox masks a more important paradox: the self-management model of privacy embedded in notice-and-consent pages on websites and other, analogous practices can be readily shown to underprotect privacy, even in the economic terms favored by its advocates. The real question, then, is why privacy self-management occupies such a prominent position in privacy law and regulation. Borrowing from Foucault’s late writings, I argue that this failure to protect privacy is also a success in ethical subject formation, as it actively pushes privacy norms and practices in a neoliberal direction. In other words, privacy self-management isn’t about protecting people’s privacy; it’s about inculcating the idea that privacy is an individual, commodified good that can be traded for other market goods. Along the way, the self-management regime forces privacy into the market, obstructs the functioning of other, more social, understandings of privacy, and occludes the various ways that individuals attempt to resist adopting the market-based view of themselves and their privacy. Throughout, I use the analytics practices of Facebook and social networking sites as a sustained case study of the point.

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  1. Foucault’s work occupies a strange place in the study of privacy. On the one hand, his discussion of panopticism in Discipline and Punish (1977) arguably provided the organizing metaphor for an entire literature around surveillance, even if there has been a move over the last decade to Deleuze (see, e.g., Haggerty 2006; Haggerty and Ericson 2000; Lyon 2006). On the other hand, if one considers “privacy” as an ethical norm or legal right, Foucault is nearly entirely absent from the discussion (notable exceptions are Boyle 1997; Cohen 2013; Reiman 1995). This is no doubt due, in part, to the general treatment of privacy as a question of information disclosure by individuals (which makes the more sociological analysis of panopticism seem less immediately relevant), and to the subsequent adoption of a theory of decisional autonomy that Foucault rejected. For both of these, see the complaint in Cohen (2012a). What is lost in the reduction of Foucault to panopticism and privacy to formal autonomy is Foucault’s post Discipline and Punish work on techniques of governance, biopolitics, and the formation of ethical subjects. As a whole, this body of work treats the ways that various social practices contribute to a process of “subjection” (or “subjectification”), and, in so doing, how they help to make us who we are. There is considerable discussion about the compatibility of these phases of Foucault’s work with each other. In particular, many Foucault scholars e.g., (McNay 2009) think—generally to their frustration – that the later work on ethics is incompatible with, or at least on a completely different footing from, the work on biopolitics and governmentality. Foucault himself famously denied this charge (“it is not power, but the subject, which is the general theme of my research” for the past 20 years (1982, pp. 208–209). For a supportive assessment of Foucault on the point, see Lazzarato (2000). It is also possible that Foucault’s understanding of biopower changes between his introduction of the subject in 1976 and his later usage of it (for exemplary treatments, see Collier 2009; Protevi 2010). I will not attempt to resolve either debate here; for the sake of this paper, I will assert but not defend the view that the ethical “techniques of the self” open a path for studying the ways that biopolitics secures its own operation in the individual persons who use these techniques. Foucault’s studies of ancient Greek strategies for subjection, then, can be understood as models for studying the techniques in current society. Prima facie plausibility of this view comes from (a) Foucault’s own assertions (see above); (b) the extent to which the disciplinary techniques featured in Discipline and Punish are precisely about convincing individuals how they should view themselves as subjects of power; and (c) Foucault’s emphasis in his discussion of American neoliberalism (Foucault 2008) on the attempt to reconfigure subjectivity along entrepreneurial lines. For discussion of this last point, see, e.g., (Hamann 2009).

  2. I draw the term “privacy self-management” from (Solove 2013). Privacy self-management is essentially the current version of privacy as “control” over personal information, as found in earlier sources such as Westin and (Fried 1968). Early version of the theory included significant attention to sociological literature that described privacy in terms of social group formation. For the ways that this attention diminished, especially in the construction of the argument in Westin, see (Steeves 2009). Complaints about the ubiquity of privacy self-management and its failures are common; in addition to Solove, see, e.g., (Cohen 2012a, 2013; Nissenbaum 2010).

    The situation in Europe is, at least on its face, quite different: the EU Data Protection Directive encodes a number of substantive privacy norms, which result in sector-specific differences from U.S. law [for a comparative discussion of healthcare, for example, see (Francis 2014–2015)]. The Directive is also currently undergoing an upgrade designed to update and strengthen the Directive into a Regulation (General Data Protection Regulation, GDPR). There is considerable skepticism, however, as to whether this process will succeed. Bert-Japp Koops (2014), for example—citing some of the same sources discussed here, such as Solove (2013)—argues that the proposed regulation relies too much on consent and its underlying value of autonomy. He also notes that the GDPR in its current version is extraordinarily complex, which reduces the likelihood that it will achieve effective protection, especially insofar as the complexity becomes a barrier to companies viewing privacy as a social value, rather than a compliance-based hoop a similar complaint is made in (Blume 2014). Thus, although considerations of space preclude the extension of the discussion into the details of EU law, it seems plausible that at some of the same problems are present there as well.

  3. Although I will not pursue the point in detail, these problems are also problems for technical solutions that depend on predelegating privacy decisions to some sort of data vault or other software agent that encodes users’ data and their privacy preferences and then attempts to automatically negotiate with websites and other service providers. Assuming that websites would comply with such an approach on the part of users—and this seems like an assumption that needs independent justification since, as I will note, companies like Facebook clearly make it difficult to protect one’s privacy on purpose—software agents could at most help with the difficulty in effectuating privacy preferences. The information asymmetries and uncertainty surrounding privacy decisions cannot be relieved by having a software agent, and setting the agent to refuse to disclose information may still carry unacceptable costs for users. Further, the use of agents only reinforces the idea that privacy is an alienable market good, entrenching the consent mindset.

  4. This is not a new concern: see, for example, (Tavani 1998).

  5., visited 6/2014. There is a periodic reference to “guys” in the site’s front page, but it mainly proves its own exceptional status: the pictures are all of women.

  6. For behavioral economics and privacy, see particularly the work of Allesandro Acquisti, e.g., (Acquisti 2009; Grossklags and Acquisti 2007).

  7. Defaults matter. Research indicates that most individuals do not change software or other defaults (as, for example, 401(k) participation, which can be raised dramatically by simply switching from an opt-into an opt-out default). The reasons for this are partly economic—changing defaults (especially on Facebook) takes time and effort, and partly normalizing: the default setting communicates what an “average” or “reasonable” user ought to prefer. See (Shah and Kesan 2007).

  8. One study found that nearly a quarter of respondents regretted mistaken oversharing on Facebook, reporting loss of important relationships and employment (Wang et al. 2011). In an earlier paper, two colleagues in human–computer interaction and I made the case that FB’s privacy problems are design-related: see (Hull et al. 2011). For more on the HCI implications of privacy, see, for example, (Dourish and Anderson 2006).

  9. For a theoretical development of this concern, see (Schermer et al. 2014).

  10. For more evidence of this point—that social norms and social factors like trust among group members—influence disclosure behavior in the context of SNS, see, e.g., (Nov and Wattal 2009). One ethnographic study suggests that users care about social privacy (both engaging in a number of privacy-protective behaviors but also using lax privacy settings to engage in some social surveillance) but not about what Facebook as a company does with their information (Raynes-Goldie 2010). Users also appear to carry social norms from one context into a new one that they perceive to be analogous (Martin 2012).

  11. On this point, see also (Reiman 1995), pointing out that privacy is therefore required for the development of the sort of subject who is able to rationally assess and trade away her privacy.

  12. Cohen’s claim about innovation—which flies in the face of orthodoxy—has not gone unchallenged. See,e.g., (Strahilevitz 2013, p. 2040 n125).

  13. See, e.g., (Amoore 2004) (on the individualization of risk in the workplace); (Binkley 2009) (parenting guides); (Cooper 2012) (increasing contingency of paid work); (Ericson et al. 2000) (disaggregation in insurance); (Feher 2009) (centrality of human capital and notions of entrepreneurship); (Lazzarato 2009) (importance of financialization); (Reddy 1996) (role of expert knowledge); and (Simon 2002) (rise of extreme sports as emblematic). For a very accessible general discussion, see (Brown 2005).

  14. For social networking, see the discussion and cites above. For social networking and robotics, see also (Turkle 2011). For violent video games, see (McCormick 2001; Waddington 2007; Wonderly 2008). I advance the thesis in the context of library filtering programs (2009) and digital rights management (Hull, 2012). It is important to note that one does not have to be a reader of Foucault to arrive at this hypothesis: for the “extended mind” hypothesis and its application to technological environments, see (Clark 2003), and for an argument motivated very much by classical liberalism, see (Benkler 2006).

  15. On this, see, for example (Binder et al. 2009) [finding that “social space provided by SNS typically lacks boundaries and segmentation that are characteristics of offline networks. Boundaries between social spheres occur naturally in offline networks, mostly due to spatial/temporal separation of contacts. This elaborate structure is dropped in online environments” (966)];.

  16. It is true that users can be nudged to more privacy-protective behavior, but when undertaken in the therapeutic terms of behavioral economics, this nudging serves to even further entrench the framing of privacy as a problem for economic rationality.

  17. For the argument that the EU GDPR creates similar myths—both that privacy is more protected than it is, and that subjects are more empowered than they are—see (Blume 2014; Koops 2014).

  18. Koops suggests that the proposed EU regulations are stuck in a similar binarism: “EU data protection law applies an all-or-nothing approach: data is either personal data (triggering the whole regime), or it is not (triggering nothing), but it cannot be something in between or something else” (2014, 257).


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Hull, G. Successful failure: what Foucault can teach us about privacy self-management in a world of Facebook and big data. Ethics Inf Technol 17, 89–101 (2015).

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