Are we heading towards a digital dystopia where no secret is safe? It doesn't look like it

Fortunately for us, a world where sharing is compulsory is still a long way off

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In Dave Eggers’s dystopian novel The Circle, any character who tries to hold on to their digital privacy soon comes to a sticky end, like a fly on the windscreen of a speeding 18-wheeler. Senators who object to the powers being grabbed by the Circle – the company that has swallowed up Google and Facebook – have their online histories trawled for evidence of perversion, which is then trumpeted across the web.

One chandelier-sculptor who endeavours to live completely offline is hounded to his death by hordes of gormless netizens. In Eggers’s vision, nobody is allowed a private life. Everything must be shared – from medical records to holiday tips to footage of awkward copulation. “I understand that we’re obligated as humans to share what we see and know,” says Mae, the protagonist, whose brainwashing forms the centre of the novel. “All knowledge must be democratically accessible.”

It is high-octane stuff, and likely to get under the skin of all but the archest technophiles. According to privacy technology group Truste, some 89 per cent of Britons worry to “some extent” about giving too much away while moving through life online; dating, shopping, chatting and all the rest of it. Reviewers hailed the book as “prophetic”, a “warning”. And yet the publication of Eggers’s novel, in October last year, is beginning to feel  like a watershed moment:  and not one to celebrate for the likes of Zuckerberg and Google’s Eric Schmidt.

Since The Circle landed in bookshops, politicians across the developed world have attempted to curb what they see as the excesses of life online. In December, Cameron introduced his ISP porn filter, which blocks off adult content; then in May the EU Court backed up the “right to be forgotten”, which allows ordinary citizens to petition Google to remove links to stories about them; meanwhile, from Israel to the UK, plans are in motion to criminalise “revenge porn”, which would make it easier to prosecute boyfriends (and it’s almost exclusively boyfriends) who post intimate footage of an ex-partner.

 

In The Circle, Mae has a drunken liaison with one of the firm’s creepier employees. He films the encounter and posts it online – a betrayal she can do nothing about. Were Mae to live in modern Germany, however, she would be able to call on the courts to compel her partner to delete the footage, and Google to remove any links to her name, if the story appeared in the press. Of course, Eggers writes to needle and provoke. But evidently our handcart is not making uninterrupted progress to digital hell, as the American author suggests.

More proof of that could be found in yesterday’s speech by Lord Neuberger, the President of the Supreme Court and Britain’s most senior judge. “The law on privacy,” he said, “may have to be reconsidered,” given the “ease with which words and scenes can be clandestinely recorded, and the ease with which information can be misrepresented”. This was no idle talk. Journalists will worry, privacy campaigners will applaud. Not only are we a long way off Eggers’s direst imaginings, the past few months, it seems, have put the juggernaut into reverse.

READ MORE:
Boris Johnson's suggestion that we should do away with the presumption of innocence is comedy gold  

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