Last Wednesday afternoon, Columbia Law Professor Eben Moglen gave the third lecture in his four-part series, entitled The Union, May it Be Preserved. Watch or read it for yourself here. Privacy Pundit Maud Rozee was in attendance.
Moglen continued his tradition of opening with a song with The Ballad of John Henry. Then he addressed the crowd, an even mix of students and older professional-looking types.
The emphasis this week was on the full breadth of the government’s ability to violate the privacy of Americans through the internet. Moglen characterized this problem as an environmental, rather than transactional one. The idea is that you can’t consent to have your emails and the emails people send you read by Google, just as you can’t consent to expose children to unclean drinking water. Privacy law shouldn’t be about negotiating transactions of data for services. Like laws about water quality, it should be about ensuring socially established limits on the destruction of an environmental resource. Moglen compared the destructive data mining industry with the ecological catastrophe caused by other forms of industrial overreaching.
The most insidious form of privacy invasion, Moglen said, is the loss of the anonymity of reading. The claim that “kids are sharing too damn much” obscures the real threat of internet privacy violations. The real threat is that Facebook and Twitter surveil every moment of our reading, capturing what we read, for how long, and what we click on next. There is no reassurance in the claim that companies only collect metadata about our actions. While collecting data compromises our privacy, collecting metadata destroys our anonymity. Moglen claimed that the loss of the anonymity of reading “literally” leads to slavery. He then quoted Frederick Douglas on his experience of being forbidden to read, lest it make him unfit to be a slave.
Just as a side note, Moglen’s incessant equation of the loss of privacy/anonymity to slavery started to bother me. Using slavery as a metaphor is a time-honored American radical rhetorical device, but Moglen took it too far. Also, his assertion that “Facebook rapes society” was extremely inappropriate and unappreciated.
Anyway, how can we solve this environmental problem? How can we stop Facebook from “strip mining human society?” We have to work together. If we had a strong union, there would be no need for whistle blowers to risk themselves. We are transparent to companies like Google, we should demand that they be accountable to us. We should demand that companies like Facebook truthfully declare that they watch everything. We also need ethical politicians. Moglen called for Obama to end the wartime spying and violations of the Constitution which have been occurring since 9/11. Finally, he called for technical solutions which would make commercial spying impossible. Union and peace are the keys to saving our freedom.