Disruption used to be a word with a mostly negative connotation. Then Clayton M. Christenson published The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997, with its theory of “disruptive innovation,” and, since then, “disruption” has been a cause for celebration and a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Flash forward to June of this year. Google files a motion in U.S. District Court to dismiss a class-action data-mining lawsuit. Citing as precedent Smith v. Maryland, a 1979 Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the warrantless collection of electronic communications, Google contended, “Just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague cannot be surprised that the recipient’s assistant opens the letter, people who use web-based email today cannot be surprised if their emails are processed by the recipient’s [e-mail provider] in the course of delivery. Indeed, ‘a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.’”
Welcome (back) to the dark side of “disruption”.
The Google dismissal motion bolstered the company’s no-expectation-of-privacy assertion by pointing out that users of Gmail consent to automated scanning of their messages as a condition of receiving “free” email
Whatever the court ultimately decides, Google does have a point. We routinely exchange our privacy in return for any number of “free” online services. This is the crux of the digital disruption. Formerly, we sent a message via the USPS in exchange for the cash price of a postage stamp. Google Gmail (and, in various ways, myriad other online enterprises) charge prices payable in certain less tangible “currencies” and call it “free.” When millions and then billions of us make routine use of such services, thereby weaving them into the very fabric of civilization, the resulting disruption is amplified and ramified by many orders of
What we are left with is an incredible technology that, in the course of two decades, has become indispensable and yet leaves many, many loose ends, some of which are disturbing, others threatening, and not a few downright destructive.
Disruption’s darker side is all about the loose ends.
If the District Court dismisses the suit against Google, the company’s contention that those who voluntarily turn over information to third parties have no expectation of privacy may well be enshrined in US case law. This, in turn, will almost certainly reverberate globally, since Google and other US-based e-providers do business internationally yet other countries are not obliged to swallow US case law. Many, doubtless, will not. The US and the EU are already at sword’s point over their differing concepts of digital privacy. This loose end may well bring them to blows.
In the meantime, each of us who cannot live without the great disruption known as the Internet has to personally and individually tie up whatever loose ends he or she can. You may now depend on Gmail and the like as you depend on the air you breathe. Unlike that air, however, online services and enterprises are not free, no matter how passionately you may want them to be.
Admit there is a cost, and then dig down to understand the price of each service. Having done this, make your decisions concerning which services you will use and how you will them. Neither Google nor any other online enterprise will give you your privacy or, for that matter, take it from you. It is up to you to manage privacy as you must manage any valuable and limited commodity, such as money, food, and the space in your own house. You decide what parts of your privacy you want to keep to yourself and what parts you are willing to exchange for value received in the form of a product, a service, a convenience.
If the current suit against Google is dismissed and case law is thereby created, many of us will likely decide the time has come to protect our privacy with good old-fashioned cash. Personal data services (“data lockers”), encrypted email providers, and related online enterprises offer paid subscriptions to services promising to give individual users greater control over their data. Indeed, the future of the “open” Internet may well become increasingly closed and compartmentalized. NSA “leaker” Ed Snowden allegedly used the encrypted email service Lavabit to send a message from his refuge in the Moscow airport to Human Rights Watch. Shortly thereafter, however, Lavabit’s owner, Ladar Levison, suspended operations, presumably in response to a US government investigation related to Snowden. Does this mean that governments will soon aggressively move to block bought-and-paid-for privacy on the Internet? Now, that, is the darkest side of disruption.