Jarvis: Publicness Needs Its Advocates, Just Like Privacy

At a conference in British Columbia this morning, author and media blogger Jeff Jarvis told a room full of corporate and government privacy advocates something many of them probably didn’t want to hear: that society needs more protection for what he calls “publicness,” and less focus on locking down our personal information or prosecuting companies that use that data. “Privacy has plenty of advocates already,” Jarvis said. “It is potentially over-protected, but in any case it is well protected. But publicness also needs its advocates.” Despite stumbles by both Facebook and Google (s goog) when it comes to privacy, said Jarvis, the benefits of sharing information about ourselves through social media are plentiful and obvious — including the ability to organize popular revolutions like the one that just occurred in Egypt.

In his presentation to the Reboot conference in Victoria — whose tagline this year is “Security and privacy: Is there an app for that?” — Jarvis gave a preview of some of the arguments he makes in his new book, Public Parts, which the CUNY journalism professor said he is still working on. Jarvis, who has written at length on his blog about his battle with prostate cancer, talked about how sharing what might be seen as incredibly personal information can have value. Writing about his cancer, he said, connected him with friends who had had similar issues that he had never known about, and “I got more help and support than any doctor’s pamphlet could ever have given me.”

In the brief video interview embedded below, recorded after his talk, Jarvis spoke about what he sees as the benefits of publicness not just on an individual level but for society in general, and the challenge of balancing that with the ability for governments — including those in Egypt and elsewhere — and others to use our information against us.


Jarvis made a point of saying in his talk that privacy “is not binary, not on or off — it’s a continuum,” and that different societies and individuals come down at different points along that continuum. Scandinavians publish the salaries of all their citizens publicly, he said, something other people might recoil at. And in the United States, photos of people who are accused of crimes are published without any concern for their privacy, unlike some other countries. “I am not a proponent of 100-percent openness,” Jarvis said. “For example, I would like to point out that I am wearing clothing. [But] there are benefits to being public, and we need to acknowledge those at the same time as we talk about what could go wrong — we can’t always focus on what might go wrong.”

Among the benefits of being public, according to Jarvis, are that relationships and connections are formed, which is the fundamental purpose and a large part of the value created by Facebook and other social networks. “It also enables collaboration, and builds trust,” Jarvis said. And in places like Egypt, such tools have created what the author called “an incredible wave of publicness — and that deserves protection. Yes, privacy deserves protection, but by God so do the tools of publicness.”

Jarvis’s presentation came as a stark contrast to the one before him, which was from British Columbia’s Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who said that Google chairman and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg “don’t think privacy is relevant any more,” (something Jarvis challenged in his talk as untrue) and argued that with so much potential danger around “excessive sharing of personal information,” regulators need enhanced authority and broader powers of oversight.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Josh Hallett