More on Facebook and the Contextual Integrity of Personal Information Flows

There has been an interesting discussion on the Association of Internet Researchers mailing list (and across the blogosphere) regarding the addition of feeds at Facebook and the nature of the reaction by its users. Many have criticized the reaction by Facebook users for being naive, arguing that if they knowingly placed personal information on their public profile, they have no “expectation of privacy,” and shouldn’t (can’t) complain that their privacy has been violated simply if Facebook provides a new way for others to find that information.

I disagree, and that’s where thinking about privacy as “contextual integrity” becomes helpful, allowing us to remove the slippery issue of expectations of privacy from the debate altogether.

Instead, one can simply look at the existing norms of information flow within the particular context. What has governed the flow of personal information – conceived as both the type of information that is appropriate to distribute, and to whom it is being distributed? Such norms dictate one’s expectations within that context, which frame their relationships and expected interactions with other people, with the state, and so on. “Privacy,” as a term/construct, doesn’t need to enter into the calculus. It is about norms of flow, and the contextual values & relationships that depend on the maintenance of these norms.

If the introduction of a new technology or practice into that context disrupts those norms, then a red flag must go up recognizing that this isn’t just the status quo, that something has changed that might impact the values within this particular context. Consider the Facebook example: previously, users posted personal information to their profile page and invited “friends” to have access to that page. Occasionally users would change their personal information, and a friend would have to happen upon their page at the right day and time to notice the change (they’d also have to have a good memory of the previous “state” of the page to notice if anything changed). Some level of serendipity and recall was required to notice changes to a friend’s personal information. That was the norm of information flow that governed relationships within Facebook.

The introduction of a news feed highlighting changes to friends’ profiles violates these established norms. While, the content has remained the same, but the distribution has changed: serendipity and personal memory is no longer a necessary ingredient, as the feed is automatically sent to every friend and provides precise details of each and every change to the user’s profile. The norms of information flow have changed.

(Fred Stutzman has a similar analysis, noting how Facebook’s actions “broke the cultural norms of the environment.”)

If the folks at Facebook had considered such an approach, they would have recognized the disruption to contextual integrity, perhaps anticipating the widespread revolt among users. Perhaps they would have engaged in the normative debate over whether the disruption is acceptable/ethical/etc. Perhaps they would have just introduced it as a new feature that users could opt-in for (rather than making the default, as I understand it). Perhaps they would have allowed users to select which personal information they want to have in feeds, and which friends could only discover by visiting their page.

It appears Facebook has listened to the backlash, and will be instituting similar kinds of controls and privacy provisions. Now if we could only get designers to recognize that protection of contextual norms and values needs to be a necessary part of the conceptualization and design of technology, not just something retrofitted after deployment…


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