To Soraj Hongladarom, Professor of Philosophy at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, Silicon Valley’s unrelenting global expansion is alarming. Held unchecked by our governments, tech companies can induce both individual and social suffering, he says. But just as alarming to Hongladarom is the world’s dominant response to Big Tech’s encroachment: a rights-driven privacy discourse that takes a Western point of view for granted. How can privacy regulators ever succeed when they speak only to a narrow tranche of cultures and worldviews? If Silicon Valley’s loudest opponents live just down the road from its most zealous evangelists, how can the rest of the world play a role in keeping Big Tech in check?

Hongladarom’s 2016 book A Buddhist Theory of Privacy takes issue with the dominant discourse on digital privacy regulation, which is grounded in Western conceptions of the self. Instead, he advocates for a more flexible, intercultural approach. Citing the Cula Malunkya Sutta, he advocates for recasting privacy from an individual political possession to a skillful means toward enlightened, democratic goals. In the process, he bypasses the question of selfhood inherent in a rights-based discourse, and makes space for a Buddhist worldview rooted in the tenet of anatta, or no-self. 

Five years after his book came out, as digital privacy concerns continue to make headlines, Hongladarom revisits his theory on privacy from a Buddhist perspective in the context of 2021. 

What compelled you to write a book on digital privacy regulations from a Buddhist perspective? What does this framing accomplish?

Soraj Hongladarom: I had a strong interest in applied ethics for quite some time before taking up the issue of Buddhism and privacy. I saw that most discussions in applied ethics focused almost exclusively on the ethical traditions of the West. There was a lack of consideration of how other ethical traditions—Buddhist or otherwise—could have a bearing on contemporary issues that have arisen as a result of modern technology.

I firmly believe that ethical practices cannot become ingrained in the mindset and practices of a people if the beliefs underlying those practices are foreign to them. Explaining to Thai people that they should respect privacy rights because rights are necessary for autonomy sounds quite foreign to them. That involves explaining what it means for an individual to possess autonomy in the Kantian sense, [that rights should protect individual autonomy, and that people as rational agents have the right to any action that does not infringe on the freedom of others]. This does not mean that Thai students should not study Kantian ethics, but it means, in my view, that as long as these beliefs and practices are perceived as foreign (due to the content of the beliefs as well as the vocabulary, which would need to be translated), it is very difficult to internalize these practices so that people really understand why they need to respect privacy rights.

Buddhist philosophy has something substantial to contribute to global discussions on the ethics of privacy. This should be of interest not just for people in Buddhist cultures; the interest should be global. 

Well, you don’t let Kant have the last word. Your argument takes a pragmatic approach, following the Buddha’s teachings from the Cula Malunkya Sutta.

 The idea behind the Cula Malunkya Sutta is that when one is confronted with an emergency, one needs to take care of the emergency first and leave other things for later. Of course, the Buddha said that you are always in an emergency. He wanted to shake us violently from our complacent way of living where we don’t see any emergency. The fact that our lives are full of suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) is a real emergency. Buddhism can contribute to discussions on privacy by proving that, while we might need to go deeper into the conceptual and theoretical foundations of privacy—after all this is what philosophers do—there must be a concrete set of practical guidelines that can tell the authorities what they need to do in order to respect the privacy rights of their population.

Speaking of actionable guidelines, A Buddhist Theory of Privacy invites the reader to approach privacy as a skillful means rather than as a possession. What does that look like on a day-to-day basis?

The main thrust of the book is that we can conceive of privacy not as a property that we possess, but rather as a skillful means, to use the Buddhist term. The Buddha does not merely present the actual content or the truth of his teaching in its unadulterated form. The Buddha finds different ways of teaching in order to suit the temperament of each individual student.

This can translate into the practical guidelines I mentioned earlier. The justification of privacy can proceed through skillful means. 

Rather than proposing that privacy should be in place because human beings possess it as a right, as Kantians argue, Buddhists would say that respect of the right to privacy is a skillful means toward the realization of the kind of society that we cherish. The end result should be the same, but the ways we think about it and theorize it are different. 

Your book cites theorist Alan Westin, who identifies privacy as a “social good” that requires continuous support from the “enlightened public.” Westin’s not talking about enlightenment in a Buddhist sense, but does enlightenment play a role in your theory of privacy? If so, how?

It does in a metaphorical way. Enlightenment in the Buddhist sense represents the final goal of human action. An action is good if it contributes to realizing an eventual goal. Enacting sound privacy guidelines and respecting people’s rights are such paths. It is a way of formulating an ethics that is practicable in today’s world. Democracy cannot stand by itself like a mountain. It requires continuous support from the public; it is always an ongoing process. We can look at this in Buddhist terms as an exhortation to practice continually, to always improve yourself so that you achieve the goal.

 You published A Buddhist Theory of Privacy in 2016. Have your theories on digital privacy evolved since then?

My most recent book, The Ethics of AI and Robotics: A Buddhist Viewpoint, published in 2020, creates an ethics for artificial intelligence from a Buddhist perspective. In it, I discuss privacy in the context of the use of AI (artificial intelligence) algorithms, such as in social media, when our data is collected by tech companies for commercial purposes. I return to justifying privacy in more pragmatic terms; that is, privacy is needed in case we value the ideals of democracy and equality, and not that privacy should be valued on its own. 

How do you view today’s rampant data collection from a Buddhist perspective?

The collection of data from the users of social media apps must be done in a kusala way; that is, in such a way that is beneficial to all and is in accordance with general Buddhist teachings, especially on compassion. For example, if these companies can show that their collection does not harm the users and result in the welfare of the users being taken care of and enhanced (this admittedly is difficult), then it can be shown, perhaps, that their way is kusala.

For a more granular example, Google recently announced a new, ostensibly more “private,” tracking system for navigating the internet. Looking at this in terms of anatta, do you view Google’s promise to limit tracking as a skillful means?

It depends on the motivation behind the implementation. If the intention behind such limiting is a beneficial or a kusala one, then it can be a skillful means. However, if the intention is otherwise, then it is not skillful at all. In any case, we can adopt a wait-and-see attitude. It appears that Google seems to be responding to the calls for more privacy protection, and that would be a good sign. In order to find out what their intention or motivation is really like, we have to rely on concrete evidence and what consequences accrue from their decision.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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