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LUISS Guido Carli

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Privacy: a fundamental right or false myth?

LUISS researcher Michele Bocchiola talks about his essay on the contradictions generated by the concept of privacy

Privacy, one of the most debated topics of the last few decades, is the focus of the book by LUISS researcher Michele Bocchiola. Published by LUISS University Press, Privacy comes out of a research project on new forms of interaction via the internet, conducted along with professors Sebastiano Maffettone and Gianfranco Pellegrino for the Center for Ethics and Global Politics.

Michele Bocchiola

By doing an in-depth study of the ethical and political implications as well as the philosophical literature on the topic, Bocchiola comes to the conclusion that privacy is the wrong solution to the challenges of modernity. The basic thesis of the essay is that privacy doesn’t exist, despite the existence of problems that privacy theoretically should be able to resolve. "The term privacy is an empty one because it does not refer to a fundamental human interest or to a specific problem," says Bocchiola. "Privacy was established as a tool to search for the right balance between absolute confidentiality and total openness to the world, between the paranoia of those who do not want anyone to know what they are doing and the most rampant exhibitionism. The problem is that this term is abused, putting together things that are too different to be understood as a single concept. In other words, the concept of privacy has been watered down so much that it has become devoid of meaning."

The concept of privacy can be broken down into its most basic components. Bocchiola points out three in particular: "The first regards the most personal sphere, that of solitude – being alone with your own thoughts. The second regards social relationships, friendships, intimacy – when we are with our family or friends. The third, anonymity, includes the public sphere and the way we interact with people outside of our tightest social circles. These three concepts do not overlap – they do not represent, that is, three dimensions of the same idea or three concentric spheres. They are radically different".

Privacy Bocchiola

The complexity of the concept of privacy is reflected in the legislation on that matter. Even if the current law on privacy is certainly a step forward ("like every law that gives more rights to people"), Bocchiola believes that it should go beyond its most evident limits, like that of protecting only certain information at the expense of other information. "The point is this: given that this is personal information – that is, regarding me personally – why can’t I do what I want with it? As Professor Stefano Rodotà – who generously agreed to write a preface to this work of mine – reminds us, now is the time to constitutionalize people’s rights and not just to protect their personal data."

Attention to privacy has grown as a result of technological innovation as well, as the use of platforms such as social networks reminds us every day. "Technology, like everything, has two faces and we need to learn how to regulate its use in an appropriate manner. With social networks I can stay in touch with my friends on the other side of the world, but I am also vulnerable to being observed by an infinite number of people." According to Bocchiola, "we have gone from the well-known ‘fifteen minutes of fame’” to the effort to be always present at all levels. The problem, however, is the content. To paraphrase Professor Maffettone in one of his articles for Corriere della sera, everyone has the right to say something, but not everyone necessarily has something to say."