Yes, Privacy Does Still Exist in a Facebook World

Again, the media suggests the “kids these days just don’t care about privacy” and that, thanks to online social networking, privacy as a value has disappeared.

This time, it’s Randall Stross at the NY Times, in a column “When Everyone’s a Friend, Is Anything Private?“:

Facebook has a chief privacy officer, but I doubt that the position will exist 10 years from now. That’s not because Facebook is hell-bent on stripping away privacy protections, but because the popularity of Facebook and other social networking sites has promoted the sharing of all things personal, dissolving the line that separates the private from the public.

As the scope of sharing personal information expands from a few friends to many sundry individuals grouped together under the Facebook label of “friends,” disclosure becomes the norm and privacy becomes a quaint anachronism.

Facebook’s younger members – high school or college students, and recent graduates who came of age as Facebook got its start on campuses – appear comfortable with sharing just about anything. It’s the older members – those who could join only after it opened membership in 2006 to workplace networks, then to anyone – who are adjusting to a new value system that prizes self-expression over reticence.

No, no, NO.

Self-expression and the popularity of a platform for “the sharing of all things personal” doesn’t mean that privacy has become a “quaint anachronism”. Just the opposite. The importance of privacy — and the importance of understanding the complexities of what we think of as privacy — has emerged as issue #1 wrt online social networks. This is obvious to anyone who witnessed the reactions to Facebook’s News Feed or Beacon (which wasn’t just “over-30 graybeards”), or who follows the excellent scholarship & commentary on privacy in social networking sites (like danah boyd or Bill McGeveren or Dan Solove or Fred Stutzman, just to name a few).

Stross likely doesn’t realize it, but he’s right that sites like Facebook have “[dissolved] the line that separates the private from the public.” In few realms of our lives can we truly identify a strict dichotomy between public and private information. Instead, everything is contextual. And, yes, that’s what makes thinking about privacy difficult, but that doesn’t mean we throw in the towel. Instead, we accept the challenge and work to create policies and build technologies for the sharing of information that properly reflect a contextual notion of privacy, rather than a binary one.

And if less than 20 percent of Facebook users change their privacy settings, as Stross reports, that doesn’t mean we simply say privacy is now quaint and wash our hands of the affair. Rather, we must work to educate users and give them the tools to manage and control their personal information flows.

We have much work ahead of us, friends….

UPDATE: Please read Fred Stutzman’s excellent (as expected) analysis of Stross’s article here, including a criticism of much of Stross’s statistical assumptions (I was too upset to even attempt that level of refutation).

And, for the full takedown, read our friends at Sex, Drugs, and Intellectual Freedom.

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