Before the House Energy and Commerce Committee had even concluded its hearing with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew last week, users took to the app to mock members of Congress for their questions. Lawmakers were lambasted for being out of touch with the realities of social media. One younger TikTokker called the hearings “the most boomer thing I have ever seen.”
But the TikTok controversy can’t simply be chalked up to generational differences, as the very notion of data privacy doesn’t stem from the invention of social media, the internet, or even computers. Instead, it’s traceable to a watershed legal decision in 1849, when Prince Albert of England sued a printer for trying to publish a catalog about drawings he and Queen Victoria had made depicting their personal family life. All of the elements at play in data privacy debates today—personal information, technological innovation, and national security—were also integral to that case.
As someone who studies the history of technology, I believe that understanding this history of data privacy can help disentangle the personal and national security interests being conflated in the ongoing debate about whether and how TikTok is a threat to Americans. When lawmakers nest national issues within concerns about personal privacy that they have done little to address, they play on constituents’ fears about their own information without actually mitigating them.
The 1849 ruling in favor of Prince Albert laid the groundwork for thinking about data as at once personal and national, rather than simply one or the other. In the case, Albert represented not only himself but also the monarch, Queen Victoria. The catalog in question included descriptions of etchings that depicted the royals’ children in the nursery, their friends, and their dogs alongside commentary and critique. (The sketches themselves had already been ruled private property in a separate case.) In other words, it turned the royal couple’s private life into information and made it available for sale.
This proved a foundational case on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1890, American privacy laws were established by citing this 1849 case, arguing that even celebrities have “the right to one’s personality.” By prohibiting the catalog, the 1849 case affirmed personal privacy and defined it primarily through family life. Because the etchings were for Albert and Victoria’s “private use and pleasure,” sharing data about them would strip them of their right to domestic privacy. In 1849, monarchies had been toppling across Europe, and England’s was shaky too. When a judge ruled that the royal family’s “private life forms their unquestionable title,” he defined their sovereignty through—not separately from—their domestic life. Thus, this case set a precedent of implying national security through the rhetoric of private protection. But foregrounding personal privacy in this way is unethical unless it is backed by policy to ensure that those rights are protected.
With this in mind, we can more clearly see how the TikTok regulations currently under discussion frame national data privacy in terms of personal privacy. The notion that the Chinese government could spy on or blackmail key government employees via their TikTok activity and manipulate users’ personal content are matters of national security. But the way officials talk about them highlights individual privacy online, the “private use and pleasure” of the internet.