Tech Law: Changing privacy norms
by Paul Jacobson (@pauljacobson) In many respects, privacy and the social Web are antithetical notions. The social web, is by definition, requires degrees of publicity while conventional notions about privacy encourage secrecy. One of the fundamental shifts in privacy, as a concept, is what it has come to mean on the social Web. Many people, when they think about what privacy means to them, they think of privacy and secrecy and that greater privacy means less of their personal information is made available to the public on the Internet. This is not the dominant privacy model on the Web and this is, I believe, the source of considerable consternation.
Privacy online is more about having a meaningful degree of control over what personal information is disclosed, to whom that personal information is disclosed and what their personal information is used for. This is an idea known as informational self-determination and it has become the dominant privacy model on the social Web and the catalyst for much of its growth.
Opinions about what degree of privacy we have online vary in influenced largely by whether the person expressing the opinion understands privacy as a secrecy model or in terms of informational self-determination. Those who see privacy as being about secrecy have made some fairly bold assertions about the extent to which privacy even exists in the context of a global, connected and digital sharing platform where billions of people spend hours a day sharing their thoughts, their content and the daily experiences with people who, but for their published personas, would otherwise be strangers. In 1999, then CEO of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy famously declared: “You have zero privacy anyway … Get over it.”. In 2009, when interviewed by CNBC’s Maria Martiromo, then Google CEO, Eric Schmidt stated –
If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.
Of course this created quite a storm because Google is practically the poster boy for a private Big Brother that knows everything we do only and profits from it commercially. Whether Google does this or not, is largely irrelevant. Public perception is that Google is a company to be regarded with healthy doses of scepticism even as it remains enormously popular. At the very least, Google collects a tremendous amount of data from the public Web just in the process of indexing and “organising” the Web. After all, Google’s mission statement is to do just this:
Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
When you add social services like Facebook, Twitter and, more recently, Google+ to the mix, privacy as secrecy is limited to those who have never ventured onto the Web or (and this is as important) have never had any of their personal information shared on the Web either. For the rest of us, privacy is about whether we can meaningfully manage or even have a say over what is done with our personal information.
Brian Solis recently wrote a terrific article titled “Erosion of Privacy and the Rise of Publicness” where he explores a growing shift towards greater publicity online:
Facebook and socialized media encourage participation and increasing aspects of publicness in exchange for a form of recompense. We are compelled to share information for the instant reward of reaction and linkage. These exchanges serve as currency and set the framework for a social economy where capital is earned and spent in public markets. Experts agree citing economic implications where the value of privacy and publicity have flipped.
Sam Lessin, founder of Drop.io astutely captured this socio-economical shift when he spoke at a recent gathering of technology entrepreneurs in New York, “Privacy was once free. Publicity was once ridiculously expensive. Now the opposite is true: You have to pay in a mix of cash, time, social capital, etc. if you want privacy.”
With the prevalence of freely accessible social networks, one of the new truisms of the social Web was expressed by a user known as blue_beetle in a discussion thread on MetaFilter in 2010: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”
The dominant social networks today exist because we, as users, share a tremendous amount of our personal information using these services. This personal information includes our gender, age, location, interests, opinions, connections to each other and more. All of this information is extremely valuable to advertisers who are adapting to a very different advertising model which is more collaborative and dynamic than the more traditional (and impersonal) display and print based advertising model. On the social Web, brands can target their advertising on-the-fly and based on our particular preferences which we express every time we publish a post or update on a social service. One service which does is particularly well is Facebook which presents advertising which adapts to what are we talking about any given point in time.
Clear evidence of the shift towards a privacy model based on informational self-determination, as opposed to secrecy, is in the privacy policies governing these various services. These policies focus on variable privacy settings, where available, and the extent to which we, as users, consent to a social service collecting and making use of our personal information for various purposes. Further evidence of the shift is in services which prefer publicity to secrecy when you sign up and create your profile (Facebook is known to set profile defaults to more public settings for new users signing up for the service). This practice, coupled with most people’s relative ignorance of the law and even the privacy settings available to them on the service which they are signing up for, facilitate greater publicity than many users would otherwise opt for.
The extent to which these social services interact and interconnect with each other means that content and personal information can spread far further than the service which a user is engaged with at that particular time.
Of course a significant contributing factor is a growing willingness to share despite the privacy implications because sharing means far better interaction and more immediate benefits. As Solis pointed out –
In social networks, we are the architects of our experiences and also the personal impressions we create and display for others to interpret. I believe that the empowerment in social networking is evident in the confidence we gain from participating online and sharing personal aspects, thoughts, vulnerabilities, and knowledge. We’re inspired to amplify what we share based on the responses we engender. We receive rewards as a result of meaningful engagement, which range from comments, accolades, shares, likes, posts, bookmarks and most importantly, requests for new connections. Over time, how we participate online equates to varying levels of trust, respect, friendship, and relationships – each representative of social capital.
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