Complex issues are often oversimplified so that they can be communicated in a 15-second sound bite.  And when it comes to oversimplifying complex privacy issues, many would skip serious thoughtful discussion and resort to terms like “Orwellian” or “1984.”  But this “Cliff’s Notes” version of sophisticated privacy discussions rarely matches the actual text of George Orwell’s masterpiece.

We all know the novel 1984, or at least we think we do.  But we tend to focus on the technology involved in the story and miss the underlying warning Orwell was trying to give.  Orwell’s “Big Brother is Watching” was not about fear of new technology or businesses, but a cautionary tale about government’s unfettered access to information and the misuse of technology.  


However, fallaciously comparing new technologies to the world of George Orwell has enabled special interest groups to exercise our privacy fears.  The circumvention of rational discussion misses what 1984 was really about.

Take for example facial recognition technology.  Last month, the plaintiff suing Shutterfly for using facial recognition to help users search their photo albums, called the company “Orwellian” in its lawsuit.  Perhaps facial recognition technology seems like science fiction, but nowhere in the book did Orwell reference such technology.  It appears the plaintiff was referring to 1984’s catchphrase, “Big Brother is Watching.”  

But Orwell’s “Big Brother” was about government surveillance, not a new technology like facial recognition and its consumer or retail applications.  A better target for special interest groups should be the government’s unrestricted access to our online communications.

Orwell was also concerned about the tactic of rewriting history and denying access to information.  Orwell had his protagonist, Winston Smith, working in the Ministry of Truth, where he shredded undesirable documents and hid the truth. 

Winston would have a heck of a time hiding the truth today -- thanks to the Internet and search engines.  However, new efforts to force Internet searches to hide results – such as the “right to be forgotten” – could actually be creating the 2015 version of 1984’s Ministry of Truth.  

If we are going to hold up 1984 as a cautionary tale, lets use it to focus on the real issues that Orwell outlines in his tome. We should look to bolster our Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, update legislation like the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will begin the process of reforming ECPA at a hearing today that will include government, technology and privacy thought leaders.  Let’s use this event as a first step to set the agenda straight and focus on the real challenges we need to conquer.

Rather than resorting to scare tactics to attack technology or businesses, we should instead heed the call to engage in legislative efforts: (1) update laws like ECPA, (2) limit government access to online service providers’ information, (3) oppose mandates to give governments a master key to all of our personal devices, (4) challenge governments that block access to online information, and (5) stand firm against government and court programs like the “right to be forgotten” that force businesses to hide true information.

I’m sure George Orwell didn’t write 1984 with the intention of it being used to demonize technology.  So perhaps we should go back and reread 1984 and act on the real threats described there.  

Szabo is policy counsel for NetChoice, a trade association of eCommerce businesses and online consumers, all of whom share the goal of promoting convenience, choice and commerce on the Internet.