03 March 2010

Jonah Raskin : Google Is Not God

Illustration © 2007 by Stuart Brown / Modern Life.

Google is not God:
Whatever happened to privacy in America?

By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / March 3, 2010

Google often seems to be all-powerful, and as omniscient as God himself -- or the Goddess herself, as the case may be. But recently a court in Italy sentenced three Google executives to six months in prison for a video on Google that depicted students taunting and harassing an autistic kid. The Italian Judge, Oscar Magi, ruled that the video was an invasion of the privacy of the kid who did not want his image transmitted around the globe.

Google officials have been irate -- even though the sentences were suspended; not surprisingly they see the ruling as a threat to Google’s aim to operate freely, globally, without adhering to particular customs, cultures, and laws. In short, like the British Empire of old, Google doesn’t want the sun ever to set on its dominions, or for colonial territories to rebel against its world-wide hegemony. Not surprisingly, Google lawyers, and some American law professors in the United States, have viewed the decision by the Italian court as a victory of European ideas of privacy against American ideas of privacy and freedom of speech.

But wait a minute! What American ideas about privacy? And what about the actual respect for the right of privacy in the USA and not simply the ideals? Yes, two Harvard Law Professors wrote in 1890 a famous article entitled “The Right to Privacy” in which they complained that photographers were taking pictures of rich and famous people, and that the servants of the ruling classes were going to the media with tales of their debauched bosses. They demanded the “right to privacy” -- and incidentally it was the privacy of prosperous Bostonians they had in mind, not the poor Irish immigrants arriving in the harbor.

Now, 110 years later, there’s probably less actual privacy in the United States than when Samuel Warren and Louis D. Brandeis wrote “The Right to Privacy.” There is also probably less privacy now in the United States than in 1791 when the Bill of Rights was written, and, while the word privacy is not in the Bill of Rights, it is inherent in the First, the Fourth, and the Fifth Amendments.

Freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of expression are connected inherently to the right to privacy -- to have and to enjoy one’s own free thoughts. During the investigations into communism and communists in the 1950s, subpoenaed witnesses often invoked the First Amendment when they declined to answer questions about their political beliefs and affiliations.Tthe First Amendment and the Right to Privacy might be thought of as two sides of the same coin -- both aimed at protecting the citizens against arbitrary power whatever its source.

So, one might ask, why is there less privacy today than in 1890 or 1790. First, because of expanded government power, recently augmented in the Patriot Act that gives the government the right to monitor phone calls, and emails, and maintain surveillance of citizens –- all in the name of the war on terrorists and terrorism. There are more “unreasonable searches and seizures” today than there were in 1890. Police power to search and seize is almost though not entirely unlimited.

Second, there is less privacy now because of the power of corporations –- linked to computers and the Internet –- that monitor what consumers buy and sell, where they shop, and how much they spend –- with the aim of branding them and persuading them to spend more money. Marketplace privacy is largely a thing of the past.

Third, there is less privacy today than 100 or so years ago, because Americans are tattling on their friends, their neighbors, their lovers, and their spouses. They’re tattling on Facebook and they’re twittering, too, and for the moment there does not seem any way to curtain those invasions of privacy. As a culture we are outing ourselves. We are outing our own brothers, as in the case of Mark McGuire’s brother who recently wrote a book about steroid use by the home run king.

Even in what might be called the heyday of privacy in the 1960s and 1970s, when citizens and consumers rose up to protest and to protect themselves against big government and big corporations, privacy was rarely if ever absolute. In court, when a newspaper could persuade a judge that the information it published was “newsworthy,” the newspaper was almost always ruled not guilty of invasion of privacy.

Judges – especially male judges –- had an odd way of thinking about and defining privacy. So, naked women’s bodies made their way into newspapers and magazines –- as “newsworthy” -- even when women cried “invasion of privacy.” Some mothers, like Brooke Shields’s mother, sold nude photos of their own daughters when the price was right.

The right to privacy has been superseded by the power of the mass media, including Google, to spotlight and publicize the fortunes and misfortunes of ordinary as well as extraordinary citizens –- the poorest of the poor, as well as the richest of the rich. There is, of course, also a long history of this kind of journalism in the United States. The penny press of the mid 19th-century –- so-called because the newspapers sold for one cent –- capitalized on the tragedies of the urban poor: poverty, suicide, domestic violence, and alcoholism.

It was all entertainment –- all part of the spectacle of American culture. Reporters and photographers zoomed into private spaces, caught people in marital affairs, or stuffing their faces with food, and snorting cocaine.

We no longer have the “stocks” in which colonial Americans were locked down in public and for the purpose of humiliation. But we have the mass media to ridicule citizens, mock them, and dehumanize them. The judgments made by the mass media can be as harsh as the rulings of judges, or the acts of executioners. Invasions of privacy are sometimes as effective in enforcing conformity as hell-and-brimstone sermons from the pulpit, or arrests for indecency and profanity.

Google, it seems to me, has no right to invade the privacy of citizens anywhere in the world. Google has an obligation to be responsible. As a giant corporation, it is not the little man or the little woman battling against tyrannical power. It has all the potential to be tyrannical itself, and it is refreshing to know that a judge in Italy kept an eye on Google and stood up to Google’s imperial power and its imperious executives.

[Jonah Raskin is the author of The Mythology of Imperialism and Field Days. He teaches media law at Sonoma State University.]

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