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The Right To Privacy: Peter Thiel and Thomas Jefferson

In September 1802, during Thomas Jefferson's first term as President of the United States, a political journalist named James T. Callender wrote an article in a Richmond newspaper that Jefferson had for many years "kept as his concubine, one of his own slaves...Her name is Sally." Callender further wrote that Jefferson had fathered many of her children. Sally Hemings was the daughter of a slave who had been given a home in the Jefferson household.

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Political journalist James T. Callender outed Thomas Jefferson during his first term as President of having fathered illegitimate children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

Thomas Jefferson did not offer any public response to the personal attacks and he simply ignored that it ever happened. He went on to serve two terms as President, and post-retrospective DNA evidence later confirmed that the Jefferson family shared DNA with the Hemings children.

The reason why Thomas Jefferson did not condemn the writer who outed him to the public nor did he attempt to even refute the information was due to his preference for "newspapers without government" over "government without newspapers". Jefferson was the key Founding Father who supported a free press:

"The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of public liberty....The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." -Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Edward Carrington, 1787

This has been the tradition that has been in place in America for more than two centuries. It is naturally a given that when people in the public eye are caricatured and their private lives put on display in the name of celebrity gossip, political satire and general sensationalism, the subjects usually have no definable rights into privacy. 

In The Right to Privacy (1997) authors Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy give various accounts in which ordinary citizens have come up against intrusions by the government, businesses, news media, their own neighbours, in addition to patients' right to refuse further medical treatment, people suing squelch reporting by the media, and the intrusion of the press into the lives of people- private and public; and the bottom line is that the right to privacy is not a right in the United States. Having grown up in the public eye, Caroline Kennedy writes lucidly about many of these issues, and that a person in the public eye basically has no privacy protections.

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Caroline Kennedy, with her father, John F. Kennedy in 1960. Having grown up in the public eye, Caroline writes in The Right to Privacy that people essentially have no privacy protections under U.S. law.

What might have been left of these illusory privacy rights have been further eroded by government intrusion into the monitoring of private individuals as released in the Edward Snowden documents and the advent of social media networks and search engines which have created an altered perception of online experiences by the active censorship of information and the subsequent creation of a business model that gathers information about people to sell to various businesses.

Peter Thiel has recently published an op-piece in the New York Times entitled: The Online Privacy Debate Won't End With Gawker. Having been outed as gay in 2007 by a Gawker editor before he had been ready to come out to the public, Mr. Thiel took 9 years to plan his revenge, and subsequently fund the lawsuit that would bring the publication down. Although one can certain agree with Mr. Thiel on the various injustices that gay men and women had to navigate through in the post-modern world, I wonder if Mr. Thiel realises that he has opened up the Pandora's box into the true, underlying intrusions of online privacy? From Facebook to Palantir, Mr. Thiel is making an argument against the various companies that have given him the power to take down a publication such as the Gawker. Although the particular case that Mr. Thiel had funded against the Gawker, already had legal precedents (i.e. "being photographed and filmed in a private place without consent"); his actions in the public eye have now cast a doubt upon the social networks and companies that have sold people's private information for a hefty sum.

Thomas Jefferson set a precedent in 1802 that a free press, even if one condemned him or personally attacked him, was a necessary evil for "newspapers without government." In 2016, two hundred and fourteen years later, Peter Thiel has set an entirely new precedent challenging that view.

Peter Thiel writes, "Gawker violated my privacy and cashed in on it." This is true, and one has to sympathise with Mr. Thiel. However, what if all the online users of Facebook and Google said the same thing? "Facebook violated my privacy and cashed in on it?" We could be in for a new revolution, one that puts privacy on the fast-track towards legal reform, and it could be that Mr. Thiel has unwittingly begun a dialogue into the end of social networks and companies like Google, Palantir, doubleclick and many others that financially benefit from tracking and selling users' private information. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said recently at the Recode conference that "seek revenge and you should dig two graves, one for yourself."

Mr. Bezos has a lot written about him, and probably has developed a thick skin as a consequence. I, myself, probably haven't portrayed him in the best light in the past, but you have to admire a public figure and founder such as Jeff Bezos, who possesses that kind of cool, calm-and-collected Jeffersonian attitude towards the media.