The line between privacy and transparency – October 2010 Editorial

This month has been another set of airings of dirty laundry on the anarchist Internet. With all the different ways that people have to air their issues with one another in a more-or-less public way, this is probably a good time to review some thoughts around privacy and transparency, as they pertain to anarchists, in the age of the Internet.

What is privacy and why do I want it?

When anarchist complain about other anarchists using Facebook (or Google) they aren’t railing against our desire to be social or even to share information with each other. They are concerned that the context in which we are sharing, in which we are being social, is so out of our control, is so circumscribed by the hosting company that we have no idea who knows what about us. Our privacy is being sacrificed to sociability.

What is privacy? Privacy is the counterpart to the traditional anarchist value of voluntary association. I believe that cooperating with other people (with whom I have a personal relationship) is more beneficial than competing with them. I also believe that this relationship must be voluntary to truly be cooperative. When strangers are privy to information about me without my knowledge, that is not voluntary. A voluntary relationship is one where you get to choose what another person (or group) knows about you, in context.

The context of information gathering is heavily related to size and relationship. We are moving farther and faster away from “if I want you to know something about me then I tell you,” into situations where whatever control you have over who knows what is determined by checking (or not checking) the correct box at the correct time during your use of one service or another. Of course, the larger the information harvester, the harder it is control your personal information. Not only because the size makes it more difficult to figure out where to say “no” or “yes” at the correct time, but because the larger the harvester, the more likely that your no or yes is irrelevant to the deals made behind the scenes in the name of things like National Security ™. And as the suicide of the web-cammed college student illustrates, what about the issue of story-telling (ie if our friends know something about us, where is the agreement of what they should or should not share with others?).

The largest harvester of all is the State. The State does not ask for your consent nor is it interested in your cooperation1. The State does have a cooperative relationship to other organizations of size (like Facebook and Google) with procedures in place to garner information from all of its true cooperators.


Where privacy relates to self-defense, transparency is about ethical behavior. Transparency is the motivation for being clear with someone about your desire for them, how you behave inside your affinity group, how your above ground group interacts with the world, etc, etc.

Transparency is an anarchist principle for the 21st century. It reflects the reality of an era in which our daily lives involves a flood of information (rather than great physical toil), in which the ways we communicate with each other are more likely to be texts, emails, and private messages rather than face-to-face conversations or hand-written letters.

The recent airings of dirty laundry have been great examples of transparency, of controversial actions being totally aired out in the open with no shortage of salacious detail and ambivalent hand wringing on every side of the issues discussed. What these incidents haven’t been good examples of, is privacy. We, collectively, have provided our not-friends a great deal of personal information about specific individuals, and more importantly, specific kinds of situations that our space is vulnerable to.

Our not-friends have sophisticated tools to parse and shape vernacular, jargon, and approaches to the issues at hand that we should consider before future public discussions about them. The next “Anna” will read these threads along with finding clothes at a thrift store (or will they just shop at American Apparel and wear skinny pants?).

Between us we should maintain a principled transparency. When it comes to the outside world we must work together to maintain our individual and collective privacy. These issues are more salient than ever when it seems like our greatest enemies are coming from within.

Be careful out there. The whole world is watching.

1) It requires your participation but takes it with force.

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