Blog / 2019 / The Relationship between Choice, Freedom, and Privacy

Februrary 13, 2019

Personal development gurus will tell you that it’s one of the keys to mental health, and it’s true that the shift in attitude can be powerful. Instead of thinking about tasks as something you have to do, make them something you choose to do. No longer boxed in by obligation, you are liberated by choice!

Sort of.

The idea of having a choice appeals to us for one reason: it implies freedom. After all, you cannot truly choose something unless you are also completely free to choose something else.

The problem is that in today’s world, we’re often not actually free to choose, but only personal-development-guru “free to choose.” And that’s at least in part because, somewhere along the way, we failed to protect our right to privacy.

When was the last time that you read the Terms and Conditions for a device or a platform before signing off on them? Would you have given up the ability to use the gadget or service if you had read the contract? Could you? Are you able to function in society without signing a certain number of these agreements? Face it: we don’t get to choose what to share with corporations or the government anymore.

We are observed, and no matter what our data is used for, the fact that we are observed and that we know we are observed changes our behavior.

If you can never shut out the world completely and chew with your mouth open, dance like a maniac, or have satisfying sex between consenting and communicative adults no matter what the mainstream would think of your preferences, you are not free. Privacy is essential to freedom and, by extension, essential to choice.

a colorful crosshatched painting of a Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation
Gwenn Seemel
Richard Stallman
acrylic on panel
12 x 9 inches

It was 2008 when I started to worry about all this. I had begun by looking into all the upsetting things that corporations get away with by leveraging copyright, trademark, and patent laws, and I’d quickly learned how their control over technology encroaches on our privacy as well.

A few years later, Edward Snowden confirmed our worst fears about g-men conspiring with corporate overlords to spy on us, and my uncopyrighting activism led me to Richard Stallman.

Before anyone else was paying attention, Richard realized that if software was proprietary—if companies owned the way you use your computer and stopped you from tinkering with the tools to make them more suited to your needs—computers would lose something vital and so would we. He founded the Free Software Foundation and became one of the inspirations for the free culture movement.

process images for a colorful crosshatched painting of a Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation

Over the years, Richard and I have become friends. When I painted his portrait, I knew I wouldn’t be making a video of its process like I usually do with my work, because the way I distribute my videos—on platforms like Vimeo, YouTube, and Facebook—uses proprietary software.

Making this animated GIF of the painting process is one small adjustment I’m making to honor Richard’s work, but he makes bigger ones all the time. For example, he uses cash whenever possible so that banks, credit card companies, and any other group involved in the transaction can’t stalk his purchases, sell his data, and get better at marketing to his demographic. What’s more, his decision to pay cash shields him from certain kinds of surveillance, just as his decision to not own a mobile phone does as well.

Going card- and mobile-less is not convenient, but it does protect his privacy as well as his freedom, and, by extension, ours too. Every time I intersect with one of his privacy-protecting protocols I am reminded of all the ways I fall down on the job.

It’s easy to shrug it off, marginalizing Richard and his advocacy. It’s easy to argue that, if you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t care about the government and companies snooping on your data. It’s also easy to hide your head in the sand and suffocate slowly, a process described in this article by a privacy expert.

“Private” does not automatically equal “wrong.” More often than not, “private” means singing along to your favorite song no matter how off key you are or picking your nose. Nothing wrong there, especially if you have the social graces (and the right) to do it in private (so that not even NSA’s big data obsession can record your booger count).

Don’t pull a personal-development-guru move and “choose” to care about privacy. Come to terms with the fact that you have to care about it, because, unless you do, you’ll never be free enough to choose anything again.


November 12, 2020

I have finally deleted my Facebook and Instagram accounts, and this step towards true privacy thrills me!

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


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