A Room of One’s Own: A guide to private spaces online

Private spaces, online and offline, are valuable. Privacy allows people to exercise control and grants freedom. A private space may be necessary to develop one’s own plans, to forge relationships, and to understand the world. Different political and social contexts will affect people’s conceptions of privacy, and the circumstances in which it is most valued. But the key concern remains, that private spaces are necessary for freedom and security.

Which online spaces are considered private by policymakers and platforms has significant ramifications, from defining technical specifications for online spaces to enforcing regulation of platform action on harmful content online.

A Room of One’s Own explores private spaces online, and is calling for the Government, tech companies and civic society to implement a new definition of private spaces online, which provides various obligations that these platforms and policymakers should consider when designing, regulating, or accessing private spaces online.

The report finds that 87% of British people say that having control over their information online is important to them. However, 84% also say that the authorities’ ability to police online abuse and the use of online spaces in criminal activities is important. The report seeks to resolve this tension by calling for increased investment and collaboration on solutions to online harms, which do not compromise the privacy of users.

The discussion paper argues that it is not the case that the only spaces which should be considered private are those in which a user has total control of their information – there are different degrees of privacy. Demos presents its working definition of a private space online:

An online space should be considered private insofar as a user can reasonably expect that they control who sees information that they share within that space.

Commenting on the findings, Ellen Judson, Senior Researcher at Demos and co-author of the discussion paper, said:

“People’s views of private spaces online are more nuanced and complex than is often assumed. But what comes through our research more than anything, is that users don’t just want privacy from other users. People want transparency and choice from tech companies about the privacy from the companies themselves, of the online spaces they use. 

“Tech companies have made gradual progress and improved their transparency on privacy in recent years. But there is still a long way to go. We’re calling for policymakers and tech companies, who are making decisions about what private spaces should look like, to centre what users expect and what users want from these new digital spaces.”

The discussion paper proposes a solution which balances privacy, control and choice for users, whilst making sure that these platforms are safe and secure spaces.

Read the full report here.