One of my friends, Jean Queralt, runs the TIOF which is campaigning for a universal declaration of digital rights. This is similar to the UN’s declaration of human rights. One of the things that our conversation triggered was the thought that the Islamic concept of Haya could add lots of value to the arguments for digital privacy.
Non muslims at this point are probably going “what?” That’s understandable. Let me explain a little bit about what Haya is.
In arabic Haya, حياء , means modesty or decency. Without going through all the theology one of the impacts of Haya is that women wear head scarfs. They wear them to protect their modesty.
Many people have a view on whether that is a good thing or not. France bans them, the UK tolerates them, the US thinks that a congresswoman who wears one was responsible for 9/11. On the other hand hundreds of millions of people think that it is a reasonable approach to life, and others like my mother in law wear a headscarf when it suits her.
What Should be Public and What Not?
Underlying this is the sense that there are some things that should not be seen. The sense that some things are not publicly available, should not be publicly available.
This is something that we can all agree on. When should a mankini be worn in public? When should you let your teenage children go to the mall naked? When should you let people watch you going to the toilet? Or making love to your husband or wife?
Judged by public decency laws across the world, and the lack of opposition to them, most people like to keep much of their lives private. My love handles and bulging belly are my business. The public only knows about the rather smart Thomas Pink shirt that covers them.
Arguments for modesty can be overstated. In the middle ages who you were determined what you could wear and the colours it could be. This was a massive repression of individual freedom and liberty. In Iran and Saudi Arabia it is obligatory for women to fully cover up. This both deprives people of their freedom of choice. It also deprives them of their moral agency. How can I be modest, and thus virtuous, if I haven’t made that choice myself?
This is the connection to digital privacy.
The Emperor’s New Clothes
At the moment it seems that there is a disconnect. I am the emperor who believes he is wearing clothes. In reality I am naked and my immodesty would be shaming if I even knew.
Just think what ‘corporations’ know about me that even people close to me do not.
- Who my lover is and where he/she lives (Waze, Google Maps, Online Florists)
- My sexual preferences (Porntubes and sex toy purchases from Amazon)
- What STD’s I have and who I probably got them from (Facebook, Google Search)
- What my genitals look like (Apple iCloud, Dropbox, Drive)
- The sounds I make when I orgasm (Siri, Alexa)
I’m sure that information isn’t captured in a discrete database table on a Google server. Equally so, I know that when I check out a new drug for erectile dysfunction that every website I visit for the next few weeks knows about my problem and shows me ads.
What would be private in normal live, and kept so using social and religious means, such as haya, is not online.
Online and Offline Modesty
How would you be modest online?
How are you modest in real life?
There are three components.
- Laws on modesty/decency that the government enforces
- Social norms that society obligates
- Personal norms that you like to keep
In the UK the government has made laws so that it is decent for men to show their nipples in public and indecent for women to show theirs.
Socially we know that it’s ok to wear a bikini on the beach but not to the opera
Personally; my Dad wears pyjamas. I sleep naked.
Modesty and Digital Privacy
When we look at digital privacy we can replicate this.
There are some types of information about you that should never be shared or captured. Companies and individuals online should not be able to ask for it, use it or benefit from it. Neither should you.
There are other types of digital information that you should be able to share under certain circumstances. How and where and when is constrained.
Finally there is information that you can freely share and which can be freely used because it is fully under your control.
What types of information go into each bucket?
I have no idea. Intuition tells me that it should broadly mirror what we do in our offline lives. Offline my spouse knows about my sexual preferences, so do previous partners. No one else. Why should online be any different?
Digital modesty thus maps well onto digital privacy. It certainly doesn’t cover everything that digital rights do, but it is a good starting point.
Haya and Digital Rights
This brings us back to the Islamic concept of haya and digital privacy. Whatever you may feel about a veiled and shrouded woman, on a cultural basis it is clear that Islam believes that there is something worth protecting.
Haya and the various hadith lay out an approach to achieving modesty in everyday life. Digital privacy should enable everyone, irrespective of their religious beliefs, to obtain digital modesty online.
So next time you see a woman wearing a headscarf, think about whether you are wearing a digital head scarf or letting it all hang out for everyone to see and profit from