First Monday

Privacy as a luxury commodity by Zizi Papacharissi



In contemporary democracies, privacy is recognized as a basic human right — the ‘right to be let alone,’ as defined by the landmark Warren and Brandeis (1890) Harvard Law Review article. It is rumored that Warren was inspired to write this article following intrusive news coverage of society parties his wife had thrown. These culminated with the press taking and publishing photographs from his daughters’ private wedding party. At the time, Warren and Brandeis saw it necessary to assert the right to privacy, or, in their words, ‘the right to an inviolate personality’ given the prevalence of media platforms that could so easily render a private event, public. In modern societies, this distance between public and private dwindles, and contemporary media further blur the lines separating private from public. Social media, in particular, enable individuals to connect with multiple audiences on online social planes that are neither conventionally public, nor entirely private. In the publicly private and privately public era of Facebook, Ms. Warren’s guests would have been tagged in Facebook photographs that were publicly available to outside networks and third parties.

The question of privacy in a digital era has resurfaced, following the most recent privacy policy changes implemented by Facebook. The revised, default architecture prompts users to be more public with their information. While it is possible for users to edit these settings, the code that belies the structure of the network makes it easier to share, than to hide information. Digital traces of consumer behavior are thus left on partner and third party sites that users visit, like, or share. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has argued that these changes make it easier for users to share information across the social Web (Sutter, 2010). By contrast, activist groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), claim that Facebook pulled a “privacy bait and switch,” getting users to provide personal information under one set of privacy terms, then modifying their privacy policies (Chittal, 2010). After much turmoil, Facebook took some steps to make privacy settings more accessible and manageable for their members (Zuckerberg, 2010). Still, the following chart, constructed by Matt McKeon, a developer with the Visual Communication Lab ( at IBM Research’s Center for Social Software (, depicts the overall effect of Facebook’s gradual changes to its default privacy architecture.


Figure 1: Evolution of privacy on Facebook
Figure 1: Evolution of privacy on Facebook.
Source: M. McKeon, 2010. “The evolution of privacy on Facebook,” at


This evolution of privacy guidelines maps a digital path to sociality taken at the expense of privacy. This is not new: Sociality has always required some (voluntary) abandonment of privacy. In order to become social, we must give up some of our private time and space, so as to share it with others. This balance between privacy and sociality has always existed; what is upsetting to many users is that it now rests upon a social plane that digitally records, archives, and tracks social behaviors by default.

The Privacy question, in its present form, is an urban problem of modernity. Individuals living in rural communities were preoccupied with privacy, but in ways and for reasons different from ours. In a world where communal practices were emphasized, the desire to be private was frequently associated with something to hide, and gossip was perceived as a means of expressing solidarity (Norris, 2001). Modern and urban life charged individuals with the responsibility of managing their sociality, and their privacy, in unknown and urban territory. Urban environments afford a certain measure of distance (Simmel, 1971), that might suggest autonomy in defining private boundaries, but with autonomy comes responsibility to delineate and protect private boundaries. Yet individuals maintain social relationships in both urban and agrarian settings, and in doing so, they gradually confide private information to attain personal closeness with valued others. An optimal balance between disclosure and privacy can be beneficial for the individual’s personal approach to sociality. Problems arise when individual autonomy in making social decisions is challenged.

The balance between privacy and sociality takes on new meaning as Internet–based platforms, like social network sites, afford sociality for privacy, at the expense of personal autonomy. All Web–accessible platforms, offer services, mostly social, in exchange for personal information. This simple step, taken by many, transforms our personal information into currency, and our privacy into a commodity.

Thus, our right to privacy is traded, in exchange for access to social services. Byte by byte, our personal information is exchanged as currency, to gain digital access to friends. In this manner, personal information is commercialized into the public realm, with little input from the individual in the process. Slowly, privacy defined as the right to be left alone attains the characteristics of a luxury commodity, in that a) it becomes a good inaccessible to most b) it is disproportionately costly to the average individual’s ability to acquire and retain it, and c) it becomes associated with social benefits inversely, in that the social cost of not forsaking parts of one’s privacy in exchange for information good and services (e–mail account free–of–charge, online social networking) places one at a social disadvantage. Luxury goods not only possess a price point beyond the average person’s reach, they also connote social status and advantage.

But what renders privacy a luxury commodity is that obtaining it implies a level of computer literacy that is inaccessible to most, and typically associated with higher income and education levels, and certain ethnic groups, in ways that mirror dominant socio–demographic inequalities (Hargittai, 2008). As a luxury commodity, the right to privacy, afforded to those fortunate enough to be Internet–literate becomes a social stratifier; it divides users into classes of haves and have–nots, thus creating a privacy divide. This privacy divide is further enlarged by the high income elasticity of demand that luxury goods possess. This privacy divide is further enlarged by the high income elasticity of demand that luxury goods possess. Privacy as a luxury commodity possesses similar elasticity; as people become more and more literate, they will be able to afford greater access to privacy. The goal for regulation is to effectively turn privacy into a normal good — a good that everyone may afford, or even better, a public good. A regulatory solution to the privacy divide must address market factors that render privacy a luxury commodity.

The current state of privacy law in the U.S. mirrors that of the general U.S. regulatory mentality, which is biased toward letting the market self–regulate. Unlike most European countries, there are few laws concerning privacy, and they pertain to the government’s use of personal information. The most recent and notable of these are the Financial Modernization Act (Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act of 1999), and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA, 2000). The former specifies that financial institutions must inform customers about their privacy practices, but provides limited control to consumers regarding the use and distribution of personal data. Recently, President Obama criticized the act as responsible for leading to subsequent deregulation and to the 2007 subprime mortgage financial crisis, and several leading economists articulated similar arguments. Under the Act, individuals are granted some privacy protection but must still proactively make certain that their personal information is not made available to third parties. Children understandably receive greater protection under COPPA, which lays out specific regulations for companies targeting individuals under the age of 13, online. Aside from COPPA, regulatory policy in the U.S. is founded upon the assumption that Web operators disclose, but do not adjust or restrict information gathering and distribution practices. Statements of privacy practices are descriptive and explanatory of privacy practices, but are not inherently protective of privacy. Such privacy practice disclosures tend to be employed more as legal safeguards for companies, and less as guarantees of the safety of personal data (Fernback and Papacharissi, 2007). A regulatory framework must define, protect, and educate about ‘the right to an inviolate personality’ online. Ultimately, because online environments work glocally, educating the public about the ‘right to be let alone,’ online, is an important part of crafting a regulatory solution that ensures privacy becomes a public good, for global users. End of article


About the author

Zizi Papacharissi, Ph.D., is Professor and Head of the Communication Department, at the University of Illinois–Chicago. This article is based on ideas developed in her book, A private sphere: Democracy in a digital age (Polity), published in June 2010.



N. Chittal, 2010. “The case for staying with Facebook,” American Prospect, Web–only edition (14 May), at, last accessed May 2010.

J. Fernback and Z. Papacharissi, 2007. “Online privacy as legal safeguard: The relationship among consumer, online portal, and privacy policies,” New Media & Society, volume 9, number 5, pp. 715–734.

E. Hargittai, 2008. “The digital reproduction of inequality,” In: David Grusky (editor). Social stratification: Class, race, and gender in sociological perspective. Third edition. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press. pp. 936–944.

M. McKeon, 2010. “The evolution of privacy on Facebook,” at, last accessed May 2010.

K. Norris, 2001. Dakota: A spiritual geography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

G. Simmel, 1971. “The metropolis and mental life,” In: G. Simmel. On individuality and social forms: Selected writings. Edited and with an introduction by D. Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 324–340.

J. Sutter, 2010. “Facebook makes it easier for users to share interests across Web,” (21 April), at, last accessed May 2010.

S. Warren and L. Brandeis, 1890. “The right To privacy,” Harvard Law Review, volume 4, number 5, pp. 193–220.

M. Zuckerberg, 2010. “Making control simple,” Facebook Blog (26 May), at, last accessed July 2010.


Editorial history

Paper received 24 May 2010; accepted 12 July 2010.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Privacy as a luxury commodity
by Zizi Papacharissi.
First Monday, Volume 15, Number 8 - 2 August 2010