When it comes to your privacy, the UK has decided that you’re a bunch of c-words

Privacy / UK policy
Glasgow city centre as a film set, July 2021

We’ve known for a long time that the UK’s post-European digital strategy wasn’t going to place privacy front and centre. Whether the vision has been negative and spiteful (e.g. anti-Europe) or constructive and aspirational (e.g. pro-business), depending on which Spinal Tap drummer Minister for Digital was holding the brief, it hasn’t been a question of whether our privacy rights were on the chopping block. It’s been a matter of when and how we’re set to lose them.

Today, we’ve had sight of where the UK government intends to take us; more to the point, we’ve had sight of exactly what it is they think of you.

Within the full text of DCMS’s new digital policy strategy, published this morning, you’ll find a section called “A light-touch and pro-innovation regulatory regime”. By “regulatory”, of course, they actually mean “deregulatory”, specifically the dissection of the European-derived, rights-based privacy regime. And it’s for those reasons that the section starts with an incredibly revealing paragraph:

Now that we are no longer part of the European Union, we have the opportunity to create an agile, light-touch and forward-looking regulatory ecosystem for digital tech. This will stimulate innovation and allow our tech sector to thrive, while protecting businesses and consumers.

and amongst all that policy babble, your future is right there in front of your face. There it is. The c-word.

Consumer.

When we talk about privacy, “consumer” is only ever an American word, an American term, and an American concept. You most frequently hear it used in the phrase “consumer privacy”.

The reason you hear it in that context is that the US is a country which does not respect privacy as a fundamental human right, nor does it protect privacy with any form of universal rights-based privacy law.

Once you understand that, you come to understand that “consumer privacy” isn’t just an American expression; rather, it’s an American declaration of belief. That belief is that privacy only exists as a limited condition within a contractual transaction between an individual and a company.

What that form of privacy looks like, and how it impacts the life of a person caught up in it, is entirely up to the company; the person doing business with that company has no basic set of rights outside that relationship. Even if they have no relationship with that company, as a “consumer”, at all. (Remember, Americans’ lives are not their own, data-wise, and the privacy labour they must expend to protect their personal privacy and their data – constantly, retroactively, and defensively – is seen as a positive exercise of their personal freedom.)

In other words, there isn’t a single word that transmits a more contemptuous attitude towards personal privacy rights than “consumer”, and that is why you should look suspiciously at anyone who uses it – even if they are working in a privacy-related role.

(I go much deeper into these Transatlantic cultural differences on privacy, and why I despise the term “consumer” with every fibre of my being, in my upcoming book. Yeah, I had to throw a shameless plug in there.)

Far from being horrified by this state of play, the UK, under Conservative rule, has viewed it as the American dream. Free from all that stifling European bureaucracy, and those pesky universal human rights, American companies can exploit all the data, and all the people whose data it is, without the need for permission nor forgiveness.

To do that, though, and still be able to look at yourself in the mirror, you have to change the way you look at other people. In fact, you have to dehumanise them, from people with rights, into data points with exploitable commercial potential.

Language is the quickest way to do that.

And so we have been dehumanised, in a few paragraphs, from people to consumers.

On a good day, the use of the word “consumer”, in a non-US privacy context, can be seen as a lazy Americanism, thrown in by a lazy writer, which slipped past a lazy editor.

But this is not a good day here in the UK. And this is not a good government.

A good government, after all, would not dehumanise you, in front of your face, from a person who has rights, to a consumer who will have some amount of “choice and control” over the way information about you is misused, exploited, and commercialised without your permission. Nor would they gleefully exalt this new normal as an opportunity, a liberation, and a progression.

Not for you, mind. You don’t count. Remember?

You’re just a bunch of consumers.

Header image photo by me: Glasgow city centre, July 2021, during the street filming of Archaeologist Adventure Hero Movie Number Five.

The Author

I advocate for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. This is my personal site, and the opinions on it do not reflect the views of any current or previous employer.