before the house The Energy and Commerce Committee concluded its hearing with TikTok CEO Xu Zichew last week, with users taking to the app to mock members of Congress for their questions. Lawmakers have been criticized for being out of touch with social media realities. One young Tic Toker called the auditions “the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
But the Tik Tok controversy cannot be attributed to generational differences, as the concept of data privacy did not originate with the inventions of social media, the Internet, and computers. Instead, a watershed legal decision was reached in 1849 when England’s Prince Albert sued a publisher for attempting to publish a catalog showing pictures of his and Queen Victoria’s private family life. All the elements at play in today’s data privacy debates—personal information, technological innovation, and national security—were also central to that issue.
As someone who studies the history of technology, I believe that understanding this history of data privacy helps to separate the interests of personal and national security in the ongoing debate over whether and how TikTok poses a threat to Americans. When lawmakers set national agendas that have done little to protect personal privacy, they play into voters’ concerns about their own information without actually alleviating it.
In the year A decision in favor of Prince Albert in 1849 laid the groundwork for thinking about data as simultaneously personal and national, rather than one or the other. In the case, Albert represented not only himself, but also Queen Victoria. The catalog in question included Etchys’ descriptions of the children of the royal family in the nursery, their friends and their dogs, along with commentary and criticism. (The paintings themselves were private property and were purchased in a separate case.) In other words, he turned the royal couple’s private life into information and made it available for sale.
This proved a fundamental issue on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In the year In 1890, US privacy laws cited this 1849 case, arguing that even celebrities had a “right to privacy.” By banning the catalog, the 1849 issue asserted personal privacy and was defined primarily by family life. Because these images were for Albert and Victoria’s “personal use and enjoyment,” sharing information about them would violate their right to domestic privacy. In the year By 1849, imperialism was collapsing across Europe, and so was the British government. A judge ruled that the royal family’s “unquestionable right to private life” meant their sovereignty was independent of their home life. Therefore, this issue sets a precedent for referring to the security of the country in the discourses of personal protection. But prioritizing personal privacy in this way is unethical unless supported by a policy to ensure that those rights are protected.
With this in mind, we can clearly see how the Tik Tok regulations that are currently under discussion will create national data privacy in terms of personal privacy. The notion that the Chinese government could spy on or blackmail key government officials through their TikTok activities and access users’ private content is a matter of national security. But the way officials talk about them emphasizes individual privacy online, the “private use and enjoyment” of the Internet.