Privacy as a Common Good in the Age of Big Data

by Josie Roux and Fabio Tollon

Do we need to rethink the role (or conception) of privacy in a highly digitised world? The widespread collection of online user data has generated substantial interest in the various ways in which our right to privacy has been violated. Additionally, worries about our privacy being undermined are also linked to the coercive or manipulative power that digital technologies have over our lives. The concern, then, is that the widespread gathering and use of massive amounts of private information by Big Data barons might undermine individual autonomy. Moreover, if we consider that citizen autonomy is a crucial element of democracy, it becomes clear that the problem of privacy invasions of widespread data collection goes beyond its effect on individual users.

Here we would like to suggest that this situation demands that we reassess the way that we value privacy in liberal democracies.  Traditionally, privacy has been valued as an individual good; it is valued instrumentally for the individual goods it protects such as intimacy, creativity, self-expression, and personhood. In general, privacy is viewed as a right afforded to individuals that protects them from incursions from society. However, if we value privacy for its essential role in the protection of democracy, then it becomes clear that privacy is not only important for individuals but for society as a whole, and is not just an individual good but a common good. Read more »