Tales from the Net

a work in progress

Friday, August 27, 2010

31 months later: The Economist’s Debate on Privacy

The Economist's logo

The Economist’s latest online debate is on whether governments should do far more to protect privacy.  In early returns 72% of the voters agreed with Marc Rotenberg of EPIC that governments should do far more to protect privacy, but after the rebuttals it stands at 63%-37%.  Props to Jim Harper of the libertarian Cato Institute, who’s taking the “no” side.

The debate continues until September 2, and there are also insights from experts  Joseph Turow of the Annenberg School, Jules Polonetsky of The Future of Privacy Forum, and Simon Davies of Privacy International …

Hey wait a second, I’m noticing a pattern here.

Christina Gagnier: I can't think of any women ... oh wait

Yeah really.  And it’s not just women who are being ignored. There aren’t any students or seniors, they’re all from DC, Philadelphia, or London, and it seems like a pretty white bunch to me.

Don’t get me wrong. Deborah and I have worked with Marc, Jim, Jules, and Simon on activism campaigns and organizing the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, and have a lot of respect for all of them. Even when we disagree, they articulate their positions very well.  They’re all extremely qualified to speak on this issue.

But there are a lot of ways in which they are very similar, and so there are a lot of perspectives that are not being represented.

Gender, age, race, and power in online discusions, chapter n, from January 2008, calls out The Economist for a similar pattern in their first online debate.* This was one of the first stories we covered here on Tales from the Net, and despite the bias to straight white guys, it was a great experience and vibrant debate.   The “pro” side wroting their opening argument in Twitter (how cool is that?) and different perspectives in the blogosphere complemented the ones on The Economist‘s site.  And in his closing statement, the moderator said:

I also admired the interventions from JON PINCUS, who pointed out that supporters of the motion underestimated “the risks that the new technologies will in practice reinforce (rather than counter) existing negative biases and trends in the system”.

Indeed.  Fortunately new technologies can counter existing biases as well as reinforce them.

So let’s get involved in the discussion on The Economist‘s site, and try to bring other perspectives forward during the debate.  Here’s an excerpt from my first intervention:

The discussion would benefit from insights from government regulators; why not include people like Jennifer Stoddart, Ann Cavoukian, and Ilse Agnier?  Similarly I would like to hear the private sector speak for itself; David Drummond of Google, Fran Maier of TRUSTe, or many others would have interesting things to say.   And given the well-known generational differences in views of privacy, input from youth-orited researchers like danah boyd (who coincidentally enough has just blogged about the subject) would be helpful as well.

More generally, women, students, people of color, and seniors have views on this issue.  You would do a great service to your readers by featuring them as well as , as well as middle-aged white men.

Your thoughts?


* Alas the site’s no longer available, but our summary and link post here has excerpts from Ewan McIntosh (pro), Michael Bugeja (con), Parry Aftab (guest), and danah boyd (whose posts shaped the debate even though she wasn’t an official participant), as well as links to posts including Vicki Davis on Cool Cat Teacher (which includes a lot of detail on the ways she uses Ning), Ira Socol on SpeEdChange, danah’s classic Let’s define our terms, and many others. Michael, Vicki, and Ira also join in the comments on the passionate plea for the educational possibilities of social networking Why I’m voting “pro”.

posted by Jon at 9:40 am  


  1. It’s going down to the wire, with a razor-thin 51-49% majority agreeing with Marc Rotenberg that the government should do more to protect privacy. So vote now if you haven’t already — and remember, you can change your vote up until the deadline.

    The tide swung against Marc after the rebuttals, where Jim Harper made some very strong points on the “no” side. Also rather disappointingly the “yes” side has not done any significant blogging or social media advocacy. A debate like this is a great chance to make a strong case on a broad public stage, and if the early ratio of 70-30 had held up that could have been enough to get politicians across the world to take notice. It’d be a shame to see the opportunity missed.

    But hey, it’s not over yet. vote now, if it’s not too late. Let your friends know about it — post it on Facebook, tweet it, email it.

    And however it turns out, please come back after the weekend. We’ve got some ideas for next steps. Stay tuned for more!


    Comment by Jon — September 2, 2010 @ 9:25 am

  2. The “yes” side held on to win 52%-48%. In stark contrast to the social network debate a couple of years ago, there didn’t seem to be much conversation about this in the blogosphere. Disappointing.

    From moderator Martin Giles’ closing statement:

    One thing is clear: policymakers and companies need to tread cautiously in this brave new online world and they would certainly benefit from reflecting on the arguments raised in our virtual chamber. As John OConnor puts it so well in his recent comment from the floor, “the debate in itself has provided value and insight and, I’m sure, contributed to revised perspectives for mostly all of us.” That is precisely what a great exchange of views is supposed to do.

    I’d like to point out that policymakers and companies would also benefit from reflecting on who wasn’t invited to raise arguments in the virtual chamber, but alas the Economist has already closed down discussion on this debate on their site.

    Comment by Jon — September 7, 2010 @ 3:09 pm

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