18 Dec 2010
December 18, 2010

Pirates and Protecting Personal Privacy


The Digital Economy All Party Group (DEAPPG) held a meeting on Wikileaks (hastily advertised below) to co-incide with the possible release of Julian Assange on 14 Dec.  He stayed in jail that day, of course, but we did have Wikileaks supporters and also some representatives of the UK Pirate Party.  I was especially intrigued by the latter, because their raison d’etre argument is so polemical yet in person they were so keen to engage in intelligent debate rather than simply spout dogma. Leaving aside issues of copyright, 3 things about their (‘your’, if you’re a pirate) argument struck me.

First, they argued that it was technically impossible to stop leaks then internet dissemination.  We spoke about high-access databases like Siprnet, mirror sites, P2P and encryption, for example.  Second, they argued strongly for personal privacy. Third, argued that the state did not have the right to decide what should be kept from the public (essentially, private information) and what should not (pretty much everything else).

My reply to these points was first that you can’t really argue for the protection of personal privacy if you also think it’s inexorable that everything’s going to come out.  And, in any case, is it really possible to separate ‘private’ information from stuff that isn’t ‘private’.  But let’s assume for the moment that you aren’t an absolutist (has Experian ever had a leak?) and that private/non-private is an easy distinction to action. In that case, who should make that distinction if not the state?  The unelected great and good?  The private sector?  Pirates? None of the pirates tried to answer that question although I put it a number of times. There is an answer though, I think. It’s Anarchy.

It seems to me that it’s only really possible to see the pirate argument as coherent is if it’s essentially anarchistic. Yet while one pirate did argue that all information would indeed come out in the end, which is certainly coherent elides the anarchy thing, most of the others did not seem to me to be anarchists at all.  Perhaps some do want to kill the state, in which case they’re marginalised and probably largely pointless.  But I think that most are motivated through their  strong disagreement with analogue orthodoxies and the plain fact that ‘powerholders’ are a long way from truly understanding how the world’s changed through new media technology.  Some are trying; others are shoring up old assumptions because they profit from it.

Polemical arguments are always useful.  People with political, commercial, anyotheral, power now have a responsibility to question their own assumptions about information, creativity, communications, all the rest. And not just on a technical level.  In return, though,  perhaps pirates with great technical expertise need to think more about what people are like. About whether they like democratic values or regard them as irrelevant.  About whether they want their present ideas to be part of the solution or simply put on the shirt and tie when the mortgage come along.

Whatever, it was a great session.  And if you were there, thank you very for attending and contributing.  See you again next time.