The Internet, and Privacy – from today’s Observer

Observer Front Page, Sunday 17 JUly 2008Three columns in today’s Observer raise interesting issues.

First, Vint CerfIf you thought the internet was cool, wait until it goes space age – sings a characteristic paean to the internet:

After working on the internet for more than three decades, I’m more optimistic about its promise than ever. It has the potential to change unexpected parts of our lives: … we’re at the cusp of a truly global internet that will bring people closer together and democratise access to information. We are all free to innovate on the net every day and we should look forward to more people around the world enjoying that freedom.

Of course, not all of that information is or will be equal. Some of it is erroneous, or unreliable, or irelevant; so we will have to acquire and apply principles of discernment and technqiues of filtering. Unfortunately, we aren’t very good at doing that now; and there is nothing to suggest we not be any better online. For example, we seem to place disproportionate emphasis on politicians’ character rather than their competence. Lionel ShriverGive me a randy politician any time – as long as he cuts inflation – asks the obvious question:

Does it matter how politicians conduct themselves with their trousers down?

And she answers this question thus:

‘Character’ is a big buzzword in American politics, the assumption being that honesty, integrity, loyalty and decency in private will translate to public life. But politics is practical. I want a President who can rein in the deficit, design a national healthcare system and get the troops out of Iraq. None of these capacities is affected one way or another if either Obama or McCain cats around on his wife.

Most jobs do not require a background check on marital fidelity and for good reason. The business world values competence over ‘character’, competence being a far rarer quality than virtue, and a country is, in its way, a business. Thus I do not want a ‘good person’ as President. I would vote for a perfect arsehole who got inflation back under 5 per cent. …

Because we pay a price for both the moralism and seedy curiosity. Were some semblance of a Chinese Wall restored between politicians’ public and private lives, government might start attracting a better grade of candidate, with the kind of character that counts, distinguished by far-sightedness, pragmatism, fairness and – that rarest of qualities – frugality with other people’s money.

I entirely agree. Sex sells, so the media go after the story, and the public laps it up. But it simply shouldn’t matter, except where there is an obvious and direct bearing between the matter disclosed and the politician’s competence. Yet we blow such stories up out of all proportion. And we visit disproportionate consequences upon such revelations. A much more balanced perspective is required, one in which the media and society judge politicians on issues of competence rather than character.

However, Peter PrestonHard to tell you if a kiss and tell cover-up could happen here – considers how the recent Mosley privacy decision (already considered on this blog) could apply to protect privacy interests in such situations. He argues

The British chill, often praised around distinguished dinner tables, is to clamp down on kiss-and-tell stuff (nights of feverish passion with footballers and the like). The difficulty, however, without an American First Amendment to assert the public’s unequivocal right to know, is that privacy increasingly trumps the need to be well informed.

Again, I entirely agree. Even if revelations about politicians’ character ought to be largely irrelevant to their competence, I would not seek to silence the media on such issues. It is only through the discussion of such issues that we are likely to perceive their ultimately prurient and hypocritical irrelevance, and the principles of discernment and technqiues of filtering we will have to learn as the internet continues its relentless and exponential expansion should allow us to reach that conclusion. If so, personal matters would then be properly private, though the media would be unrestrained from reporting on matters directly relevant to politicians’ competence. Is such an outcome, achieved through the evolution of social norms rather than by means of legal coercion, too much to hope for?