Internet Halakha: Should we Expect Privacy?

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is making waves [e-week Europe]

having announced that people no longer have an expectation of privacy thanks to increasing uptake of social networking.

Speaking at the Crunchie Awards in San Francisco this weekend, the 25 year-old web entrepreneur said: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.”

Such statements, and the trends Zuckerman describes, are of no little consequences. Dr. Kieron O’Hara of Southampton University points out that

under British law, an individual’s right to privacy is being eroded by the behavior of those who have no qualms about broadcasting every intimate detail of their life online (via social networking sites) because the privacy law is predicated in part upon the concept of a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy.’

(Further reporting on O’Hara here [])

So what is the halakhic expectation of privacy? There are two aspects here. On the one hand, there is the expectation that a person can have, that others won’t snoop on him. That is covered by what halakha calls hezeq re’iya – the damage of seeing. That prohibits looking into one’s neighbor’s window or back yard. However, that right can be waved. If the proprietor has been aware of illicit snooping for considerable time and did not act by, for example, raising screens, under certain circumstances he may have forfeited his right to privacy. However, he could regain his privacy by erecting screens or talking other measures to obstruct the view.

In internet speak, this would argue for allowing people to have their information deleted from all third party servers, once the primary information is either deleted or otherwise removed from public access. [I admit that this is only the spirit of the law, and not its letter, because halakhically, intellectual property, not being a natural property, can probably not be owned, except by government decree, which falls under the header of taqanat haqahal (communal enactment).]

However, there is also another side to privacy. Besides the descriptive, there is also the normative, and government policy should not only dovetail the descriptive (what is really done), but the normative (what ought to be done). There ought to be (pun intended) an expectation that government will show the way in adopting practices that are right and good.

The term tseni’ut (modesty) is often perceived very narrowly as pertaining to the way we dress, and particularly the way the women among us dress. When speaking of tseni’ut, people will often think of hem lines and necklines, sleeve length and head coverings. It is understandable that some people react negatively to such a narrow minded concept, and indeed, tseni’ut is not such a narrow concept. It does include the way we dress, but that is part of a complete gestalt halakha argues for, a way of life, that affects both men and women, and is mostly related to how we behave.

This modest way of life is not only meant to remove us from sexual sin, or from arousing others to fantasize sexual sins, but it is an all-encompassing way of life that is to elevate us and protect the dignity of man and woman. It prevents us from being defined down as mere sex objects, but also is to elevate our speech and appearance from the animalistic aspect of our nature, and even from the mundane drudgery of life, and open a path of spiritual growth and holiness. To a certain extent, tseni’ut is or entails privacy.

So from that perspective, much of what goes on on Facebook falls indeed short of the expectation of tseni’ut, but that wouldn’t be a reason to drop that expectation.

No matter how piously we dress, it is fundamentally immodest to broadcast the most intimate details of our lives to the 3287 or so Facebook accounts one may have “friended.” And rather than jump at the opportunity to define privacy down, governments should instead promote repairing privacy and strengthening our expectation thereof, through legal measures that protect citizens when they desire to change course and protect their prvacy. While that may impede some criminal investigations, this would mostly impact the civil sphere, and turn us into a more civil society, indeed.

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