I recently watched the movie The Circle.
The movie tells the story of a fictional global tech company called The Circle that seeks to end people’s privacy. The company reminded me of today’s Facebook or Google, not because these companies are doing the same but because that’s what the director’s choice of the technology produced by the company and the company’s corporate campus suggest. The Circle’s guiding principle behind its motivation to end privacy is that “knowing is good, but knowing everything is better”.
While I believe that this principle is true for scientific information that informs our view of how the world works, it’s not true for information about the lives of people. There are two reasons for this.
The first is that people have emotions resulting from personal preferences which, as long as one does not infringe on the lives of others, we as a society need to respect.
The second reason is that many people do not have the tolerance to accept viewpoints and lifestyles different than their own. Ending everyone’s privacy would result in intolerant people, often in large groups, preying on innocent individuals.
As the movie argues, ending privacy sounds liberating in theory, but produces many bad outcomes in practice.
However, as the movie doesn’t point out, complete privacy isn’t the solution either. There are cases which justify the use of technology to infringe on one’s privacy with the goal of preventing harm. The problem is that giving the right to use this technology to humans can produce bad outcomes if it falls into bad hands.
Rather than adopt a blanket statement in favor of or against privacy, we need to go a level deeper and evaluate specific categories of scenarios on a case by case basis. With the increasing attention which the applications of technology have brought to the issue of privacy, we’ve entered a time period where we’re increasingly doing just that.
Yesterday, news emerged that Peter Thiel from the Founders Fund financed wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media to the tune of $10M. Hulk Hogan sued Gawker Media for invading his privacy after the media company published a sex tape of him, and since Hogan didn’t have the money to finance the lawsuit himself, Thiel financed it. Thiel’s motivation against Gawker Media is the result of a 2007 article in which Gawker Media revealed that Thiel is gay against Thiel’s wishes.
There were a wide variety of reactions to the news. Most people on my Twitter feed, which may not be representative of most people overall, appeared to agree that Gawker Media had overstepped the boundaries of Thiel’s personal privacy. But most people also took the view that Thiel’s response was misplaced as it may set a precedent for rich people to limit the freedom of media organizations in the future.
Here’s my take.
I agree that Gawker Media invaded Thiel’s personal privacy. As long as someone hasn’t done something wrong and doesn’t threaten to harm other people, media organizations should respect that person’s privacy. Thiel’s sexual orientation doesn’t harm other people. And Thiel explicitly requested that his sexual orientation not be revealed. We don’t know the specific reasons for the request, but since the request doesn’t harm anyone, I respect his decision. Gawker Media should have done the same.
However, I don’t agree that Thiel’s response was misplaced. His response will hopefully set a precedent to prevent other unjustified invasions of personal privacy in the future. Notice that I said “unjustified invasions of privacy”. That’s different than setting a precedent to limit the freedom of media organizations overall. If someone has done something wrong or threatens to harm other people, that’s no longer an unjustified invasion of personal privacy. In that case, media organizations have the freedom, and in fact the responsibility, to cover the act. Thiel’s goal was to set a precedent to prevent unjustified invasions of personal privacy by the media, not to limit all media freedoms. I therefore support his action.
The problem isn’t the action itself, but the money required to carry it out. If Thiel didn’t have $10M, he wouldn’t have been able to finance the lawsuit. For every person whose personal privacy is unjustifiably invaded by the media who has $10M, there are hundreds who don’t have that money. Hulk Hogan is one example.
This means that the US legal system is currently designed to protect the privacy of rich people and people who aren’t rich but who are lucky enough to have attracted the support of a rich person. And that’s a problem.