Many email programs these days by default don’t load images in messages to protect people from being confronted with offensive (pornographic) pictures. The wording of some of these programs is along the lines of: to protect your privacy, we have blocked the images in this message…. I’ve always found this use of the word privacy a bit odd.

For me, privacy means being able to keep information about myself to myself and not to have it broadcast to the public or otherwise used by others. The force of the word in this sense is about protecting my stuff from getting out. In the Internet age, this version of privacy is an important issue for people concerned about how websites collect and share personal information. As online privacy advocates note, we must be vigilant in protecting our personal information from people who want to use it for profit, legal or illegal (marketing or identity theft).

The use of privacy I mentioned up front, however, has the opposite direction. To protect an individual’s privacy in that situation means to keep things on the outside from impinging on the individual’s sense of self. It is about invasion in a different way–not the taking away of your personal information but instead the flooding of your visual field with something that disturbs your sense of self. One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions for the word is, “freedom from unauthorized intrusion,” and I suppose I could see the use of privacy as protection from intrusion in it…. Still, it doesn’t seem quite right to me that not loading images in an email to protect a person from unwanted pictures is really a privacy issue. Perhaps there’s a legal definition of the term that makes more sense…. And maybe I’m wrong to assume that the protection of privacy in this instance is about offensiveness (and pornography)….

I guess “invasion of privacy” does mean generally the idea of someone intruding on your peace and quiet, so in that sense, I can see why disturbing images in email can be an invasion of privacy. The idea of images (rather than people) intruding on privacy is a bit odd, though.

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