All too often, I hear people say that “the Internet is like a postcard” – or, using other expressions, imply that people on the net have no right to privacy. In particular, we hear this from the copyright industry, who claim that everything that happens on the internet is somehow public. This is a dangerous misconception that confuses what people can do with what people should do.
As the analogy concerns postcards, let’s look at the old analog world for a while. People would predominantly send two types of messages by postal mail: postcards, which was a piece of cardboard where you wrote the message directly on one side of it along with its address, and letters, which would have the address on a sealed envelope and the message inside the sealed envelope.
The immediate observation here would be that postcards could easily be read by the mail carrier, whereas sealed letters couldn’t.
However, on closer inspection, this observation is not true. The old East German security service Stasi steamed open hundreds of thousands of sealed letters, read and scrutinized the messages inside, re-sealed the letters, and sent them on their way in the delivery system. This was a very labor-intensive process, of course, and therefore quite costly. And that’s the keyword, right there. Cost.
Postcards were cheap to read in transit. Sealed letters were expensive to read in transit. But they could indeed all be read.
In the 1980s, Western Europe defined itself as being proud of standing for human rights. In the East back then, governments would pay whatever amounts necessary to eliminate the right to communicate in private, whereas in the West, it just didn’t happen. Nobody considered if there was capacity to do it. Mail carriers were (and are) sworn to secrecy as to what they happened to read on postcards in transit.
Then, along comes the Net. The new communications carriers have the technical capacity to listen to anything and anybody, everything transmitted in private, just like the old Stasi did at an enormous cost. But today, it comes at almost no cost at all. Does that mean it should happen?
The people talking about the Net as “postcards” or “a public place” are implying that everything is wiretapped because of the way the technology works. But as we have discussed, the mail carriers could always read what people wrote to each other in private, only at varying degrees of cost and effort. The postcard people are not saying “You should wiretap all people and make the net public”; they’re saying “you can wiretap all people, and therefore, the net is a public place”. And by this, what they really mean is “you can wiretap all people at a reasonable cost using today’s technology”, and implying (but usually not saying outright) that it should therefore happen.
All this time in the 1980s, when Western Europe held people’s right to privacy in the highest regard and esteem – did it really just come down to the cost of violating it?
The freedom from corporal punishment is a human right, too, at the exact same level as the right to privacy of correspondence. Would we really start torturing people if we could only do it cheaply enough?
Or is it something else that must be used as a decision factor – namely, what we consider a fundamental human right, no matter whether it is cheap or expensive to violate using contemporary technology?
The conclusion here is that human rights do not depend on the cost of violating them. They are absolute. Just because it would be easy and cheap to violate somebody’s right to privacy when messages are transmitted on the net, that does not make the net a public place; the right to private correspondence still applies.
Mail carriers are still sworn to secrecy, people still have the right to expect privacy when sending correspondence, and the copyright industry does not get to say that anything happening on the net is theirs to look at, just like it wasn’t in the postal system.