Progress on Privacy

The internet didn't come with privacy, any more than the planet did. But at least the planet had nature, which provided raw materials for the privacy technologies we call clothing and shelter. On the net, we use human nature to make our own raw materials. Those include code, protocols, standards, frameworks and best practices, such as those behind free and open-source software.

So far, our best privacy tech is encryption. But I won't dwell on that one, because I assume all Linux Journal readers are experts at that. Instead, I want to visit three others, all of which are new.

The first is agreements.

The most popular informal agreements in the physical world are called secrets. These aren't especially enforceable, but they are backed by norms, which are powerful constraints operating in a social context. For example, we trust that people, other than the intended recipient, won't open a sealed envelope, even if they can. The seal (such as the one shown in Figure 1) signals secrecy and has been in use for hundreds of years.

Figure 1. Seal Signaling Secrecy

More formal are the legal agreements we call terms. We encounter these every time we click "agree" to something that looks like what is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. The Legal Agreements We Call Terms

Did you read that? Go back and try reading it again.

These are "contracts of adhesion", defined (by the Legal Dictionary) as "a standardized contract offered to consumers on a 'take it or leave it' basis without giving the consumer an opportunity to bargain for terms that are more favorable". After industry won the industrial revolution, large companies needed to create legal agreements for dealing with up to millions of customers. Contracts of adhesion were the only way. Alas, this also sidelined freedom of contract, "which allows parties to provide for the terms and conditions that will govern the relationship" (says LawTeacher.net).

But now we have the internet, a natural heterarchy defined by protocols that start by assuming that every entity on it is both free to participate and a peer. In this world we can bring back freedom of contract by writing code that gives each of us ways to make and assert our own terms, and to apply leverage as well—in other words, to give us scale, as first parties. The second parties are companies we deal with, and which can agree to our terms. This isn't about turning the tables on companies, but rather setting a table that's flat, with both parties operating in a trusting way with each other.

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Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal