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DC-Pub: Introduction

 

The public realm has been the default setting of society across many cultures until in the 17th century the concept of privacy started to spread in diverse regions of the world. From that moment on, social conventions also dealt with the categorization of human behaviour. There were affairs that had to be dealt publicly for the sake of society and human behavior and interactions to happen in a more private dimension disconnected from the eyes of many - and most important- also disconnected from political control. The behaviors that belonged in the public eye changed in the course of history: in some cultures the public bathrooms with no walls were substituted by individual private bathrooms with walls and a door. The taxes individuals have to pay became in other cultures a private affair, while in other it remains a public business.

In all cases the rules and criteria to regulate those two realms both ethically and legally were fixed predominantly upon geographical criteria: e.g. the house being a geographical private territory and the marketplace a public one. In the digital age those criteria became challenged: with a smartphone it is perfectly possible to write publicly on Twitter while lying in the bedroom. Digitization is bringing new questions and challenges towards the understanding of what is private and public and what criteria should be used to decide on this.

While the discussion on privacy in the digital age is hitting its peak, the discussion on the public realm, the frame sustaining public content and social interactions and the processes that shape the public arena, have only been approached from the perspective of access or freedom of expression and opinion. Both elements are important elements therein, but they are certainly not equal to what we want to call publicness, i.e. the frame, the content, the interactions and processes shaping the public arena, public interest and the common good. We even see that some discussions like the right to be forgotten are being wrongly placed in a privacy context discussion, when actually it is a discussion about the visibility of public information.The public arena is not a universal, unified one: languages, cultures, but also time frame in which we (want to) see, access and discuss publicly. Moreover even within cultures and communities we see a range of diverse public fora depending on the interests of human beings (expert fora on natural sciences, or on humanities are not accessed and seen by everybody) or on their contexts (the public context at an expert forum or webinar at work is a different one to the public context while taking selfies and partying on a Friday night).

Digitization, new technologies of automatization (algorithms, artificial intelligence) processing massive amounts of data are changing the way and the space we interact with other human
beings. Fears and risk scenarios are arising - with still few studies providing facts and numbers to address those fears. Many questions that used to be resolved and fixed in law are being revisited and the right to be forgotten is one of the first controversies in the juridification of digitization.

We thus see a need to discuss and understand the different conventions and expectations on publicness through digitization across the world to have a more nuanced discussion.

 

Contact Information

United Nations
Secretariat of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF)

Villa Le Bocage
Palais des Nations,
CH-1211 Geneva 10
Switzerland

igf [at] un [dot] org
+41 (0) 229 173 678