Opponents to privacy regulations are indeed correct that privacy law is useless if the context is wrong. These opponents often point to 'cultural values' as one such contextual factor. There is a second one, however, and that is the strength of civil society.
It is indeed quite possible that privacy is meaningless in some cultures. This is true of many human rights issues, including free expression, protection against torture, child labour, amongst others. For some unique reasons, privacy alone stands as the issue that must rely upon cultural context while these other human rights are considered global causes. While we do not believe this is appropriate, and we believe that global protection of privacy in a modern society is a fundamental right, further research may prove to be key in this debate.
Our opponents are making dangerous oversimplifications of 'Asian culture', when in fact Asia consists of a number of cultures. What is the 'culture' in India such that people are not concerned about speaking publicly and loudly about their personal affairs? How does Islamic 'culture' influence attitudes in Pakistan differently than from Indonesia? We need further research on the cultural and social attitudes of people in these countries to see how they are concerned, and to what extent, about privacy risks and surveillance. This can be done through qualitative studies of cultures, or quantitative studies through regular polling.
Importantly, this research can not occur within a vacuum. Even in countries with long-standing and noted privacy cultures, constant education is required. The 'social networking' revolution is remarkable particularly with respect to privacy issues, and though it is often erroneously said that it marks a cultural shift in attitudes to privacy, studies have shown that the core issue is public education about risks and empowerment to choose to avoid these risks. Therefore greater public education is necessary. Already we have seen a mounting level of concern about telemarketing, the abuse of databases and financial information, identity fraud, and other privacy-related issues in Asia. Consumers and citizens must be informed better about the risks and the challenges, so that they can then decide for themselves if the risks are just merely part of the fabric of society or if they are risks that can be mitigated through some form of policy action.
Strength of civil society
Awareness regarding any human right or consumer right requires a cultural respect for these rights, but also requires a strong civil society to educate, call attention to, and raise the alarm regarding rights. We have been fortunate to find willing partners to work with in the countries included within this study, but more work must be done to sustain the interest of civil society.
An educational campaign must be established to appeal to civil society. In our experience, the privacy tent must be drawn as large as possible to include such diverse communities as human rights groups, religious groups, journalist unions, consumer groups, sex-rights groups, amongst many others. The fortunate aspect about privacy is the fact that it is a broad issue and messaging can appeal to all of these groups. Journalists are worried about the protection of their sources and are seeking to be free from surveillance themselves; consumer groups are increasingly understanding how important privacy is in preventing identity fraud and abuse by companies; human rights groups are starting to understand how privacy enables other rights such as free expression and movement, and how surveillance inhibits political activity; and religious groups are appreciating that privacy rights empowers and protects their members.
Where there is a strong civil society there are opportunities for engaging on privacy issues through civil-society educational campaigns and capacity building. Then when a legal regime is established, the regulator will be called upon to judge, the law will be used to protect, abuses will be known and the successes noted, and the confidence in the government and the market will increase. Where there is no civil society, the challenges are far greater and all we can rely upon is a single individual questioning the entire edifice of the state or taking on the large company. Therefore, cultivating civil society is essential.