David Simon and E.L. Doctorow on 'the Potential for the Orwellian Nightmare'

Balancing privacy and free speech with national-security concerns will be an ongoing problem, and we may only be able to hope for imperfect solutions.

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"It’s only the free and open Internet that allows … creativity and the free exchange of ideas to be heard." A fairly straightforward idea, especially for opening remarks at an event titled "Who's Afraid of Free Speech?" But Ross LaJeunesse, the Google executive who introduced the event—which the company sponsored, and which was hosted by PEN and The Atlantic—would find that idea tested, when panelists E.L. Doctorow and David Simon name-checked Google for its privacy policies.

About 45 minutes into the event, a member of the audience asked a question, following up with a provocation: "Have any of you been denied writing a column or article in the United States? No, you haven't, because we have free speech. But what we also have is Google. The NSA doesn't bother me. It's the information corporations can get on you and package into data that influences you, like the way you spend [money]."

Doctorow, a prolific author whose work includes a fictionalized account of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial, agreed: "They're on the same page, as we like to say. The NSA couldn't work without the agreement or participation of these companies. Their priority is to create wealth for themselves—you're right to be alarmed."

Google's LaJeunesse jumped in: "I really wasn't going to interrupt the program, because I'm here to listen. But I did want to set the record straight," he said. 

It is important, when we talk about these issues, to talk with specificity and to speak about facts. It is a real danger to conflate the actions of a government, that are not transparent, with something a company like Google does. We’re completely transparent. We give control to the users—they can use our services without signing in. If you choose to sign in, we give you complete control over that data as well. We even give you a button so that you can delete all that data at once or export it to another service.

Simon, a former Baltimore Sun journalist and the creator of the TV series The Wire, was dubious.

But is it a matter of hunting down these moments where Google ... informs you that it is going to use your information in some new and varied way, and you have to negate [that use]?

I had to opt out of a program where stuff I said online could be used in advertising. That's a rather cynical performance. Shouldn't I have to opt into it, something that extraordinary?

The exchange illustrated some of the complexities surrounding the broader public conversation about privacy and technology.

LaJeunesse was clarifying the facts about how Google's service works: It's true that people can use the search engine without providing any personal information to the company. Those who choose to sign in to Google's other services, like gmail, have some control over the ads they see and what's searchable from their account information. 

But his approach to these critiques also revealed an underlying assumption shared by many tech companies: If Google or an entity like it offers a service, it has a right to expect something from the people who use that service. Essentially, this is the expectation of any business: It provides a good in return for some sort of compensation. In this case, that compensation is information about how people use the Internet, which Google monetizes by serving people ads when they use Google services.

But Simon and Doctorow looked at the issue differently.

Simon questioned Google's right to use anyone's personal information for advertising without what he characterized as active consent. He seemed to suggest that there's something innately objectionable about Google capturing our daily lives on the Internet in data, parceling it, and selling it to companies who want to sell us stuff in turn. In this sense, he and LaJeunesse were arguing about two different things: the content of a privacy policy, versus the legitimacy of the type of business model that requires a privacy policy to exist.

E.L. Doctorow (Wikimedia Commons)

Doctorow appeared to object on a more fundamental level: "They're turning people into pieces of information," he said. "Algorithm, algorithm—what more could you want?" Again, he and LaJeunesse were focusing on separate issues: the way Google uses its data-gathering capabilities, versus the way data-gathering capabilities transform the relationship between people and companies.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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