Michael Arrington is Wrong about Privacy, Too

Responding to the brouhaha caused by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s recent proclamation that social norms on privacy have loosened, Michael Arrington (the tech blogger who was interviewing Zuckerberg at the time) has posted a piece on his blog Tech Crunch: “Ok You Luddites, Time To Chill Out On Facebook Over Privacy”

Arrington is correct that Zuckerberg never actually said that “the age of privacy is over”, and that off-line data aggregation companies like Equifax and TransUnion have been eroding privacy long before Facebook existed. However, just as Zuckerberg is wrong in his suggestion that Facebook is merely following shifting social norms regarding privacy, Arrington is wrong in his general defense of Facebook.

Arrington’s argument hinges on his claim that the masses have embraced other seemingly privacy-invasive services, so Facebook should get a pass regarding its recent privacy issues. He cites the popularity of Gmail as an example where users overcame privacy concerns in favor of simply a good service. Yet, the privacy concerns of Gmail are significantly different than those with Facebook. While debatable, perhaps people came to terms with Google’s algorithms automatically scanning incoming messages to post relevant ads. Perhaps people accepted Google’s promise that they don’t track content, that no humans actually read your email, or that this is no different than scanning emails for trigger words to identify spam.

But these possible rationalizations for the acceptane of Gmail’s privacy threats are not in the same league as Facebook’ privacy-invading actions: changing the way information is shared among users of the system, or  creating a horribly-designed op-out interface that causes users’ off-site actions to be posted in one’s news feed, or suddenly making certain information permanently publicly available. Acceptance of Google’s scanning for ad placement does not suggest we should similarly submit to these kinds of privacy threats. Apples != oranges.

Arrington provides another example to argue that we’ve all given up on privacy already, so we should leave Facebook alone: Blippy. Blippy is a (private beta) service that lets users publish everything they buy with a credit card. Arrington argues that if 10,000 people are willing to share all their credit card purchases with friends, then we should all be just as willing to let Facebook help us share our personal information. In Arrington’s words, the existence of Blippy is evidence that “we don’t really care about privacy anymore.”

But Arrington’s own original report on Blippy reveals how wrong he is. He notes:

Obviously, there will be some transactions you don’t want published for all to see on the Internet. That’s why one of the core ideas behind the service is that you’d only have one credit card (most people have many these days) that is your “Blippy card.” That is to say, you’d have one card that you know all the transactions you do on it get published.

Here, Arrington recognizes that you likely won’t want to share all of your transactions on Blippy, so you take steps to ensure only a subset of your transactional data is visible. That is, even users who are willing to share most of their credit card transactions don’t want to share them all. Put another way: they still care about privacy, and they recognize that the levels of privacy protection they seek varies with different types of information and within different contexts.

Just like on Facebook. Users want to be able to control what information they provide and to whom it is visible. That’s the essence of privacy, and it’s still very much in demand. That doesn’t make one a Luddite. It makes one a responsible user of information technology.


  1. Great post Michael.
    Where this privacy debate gets muddled is that privacy is defined as the willingness to share information, so if you share information you don’t care about privacy.
    We should instead define privacy as a social management of the power dynamic, and when shifts in information flow disrupt a power relationship, this feels like a privacy violation.
    My real proof for this is that ten years ago all professors here at Pace posted grades by social security number. I also was cleaning out old files and found a old performance review form I had submitted with a box for my social security number!! So there is nothing intrinsically private in our social security number, but now we understand that revealing it makes us vulnerable to identity theft (changing the power dynamic).
    This gets back to of course the understanding of privacy as context. This is an incredibly complex way for computing systems to handle information flow (almost like the semantic web). However, if we can develop more tools that act like a privacy mirror and reveal the information flow, I believe people will evolve social solutions to online privacy. For an interesting example of a tool for managing privacy from targeted advertising check out http://www.privacychoice.org/

  2. I posted this yesterday on ReadWriteWeb. I agree with you.

    You are absolutely right. If it was Social Media and Technology Theorist Book, then open would be fine. I believe the majority of people that use Facebook – at this point – are the same as AOL users from 1998. What Facebook has done borders on criminally negligent. If it’s all supposed to be open, then why not have everyone’s social security number out in the open?

    Why is a specific promise of privacy on Facebook any different than the promise that my credit card information is protected at Amazon.com?

    I just spent 20 minutes emailing an acquaintance of mine that is embroiled in a lawsuit to let him know that he and his wife have left the names and the ability to contact their friends and CHILDREN open to anyone that searches for them on the Internet, because their FB privacy settings are set incorrectly.

    I have written jokingly many times in the past about Twittitlement – the idea that everyone is entitled to 24/7 access to robust communication technology for free. Call me old-fashioned and crazy, but I think it’s laughable that people have built their businesses around Twitter and Facebook.

    I raise that point, however, from the consumer perspective. I accept complete responsibility for going along with “free” and building my network and re-connecting with people without paying Facebook one cent. I recognize that it gives me limited right to complain about the stupid notifications, cheesy ads or ridiculous ways they try to get you to use it more, such as notices like: “Cathleen, write on Stowe Boyd’s Wall.” I recognize the same about how I use Google services.

    The thing is, I would gladly pay for Facebook, if given the opportunity, but I haven’t been. I think it has lost the one of the main advantages it had by breaking its privacy vows. If free means I have to spend hours educating relative strangers on how to protect their families from harassment or worse, than free is too f(*&ing expensive.

    I would urge you and your contemporaries, those that agree and disagree, to stop thinking about this issue from the inside baseball – “data should be free and open” perspective – or the trade journalist – “Facebook has done a bad thing” perspective.

    If GM promised to put a free tire in the trunk of every car, did that for 2 years and then announced that they had a cool new tire policy – from now on everyone’s free tires would have holes in them, unless they checked first – consumer reporters would go rightfully ballistic.

    So look at it from a broad consumer perspective. Facebook clearly doesn’t care what “the trade” thinks because they know most consumers aren’t reading your stuff and wouldn’t understand it anyway. If you can’t get them to change their policy or to change their business model so consumers have a choice about paying for their privacy, then I ask you to consider the following.

    As a member of the trade, help figure out what other services consumers should move to instead, so they can get what they believe they were promised from Facebook, and have the option to pay for such a service.

    Recognize that what Facebook has done is unconscionable and consumers need to know it in plain language. This is a USA Today story not a TechCrunch or even a Wall Street Journal story. Help get it to the right people, so Facebook users – and users of other free media networks – understand what is happening, what they can do about it, how they can replace it and how much free really costs.

    Posted by: Cathleen Rittereiser | January 12, 2010 6:30 PM

  3. I agree with Cathleen Rittereiser’s comment: “Members of the trade” have a duty to educate the public, especially because many of Facebook’s users are minors. As I wrote in a recent blog posting: “Like in the offline world, in the online one, you are ready to share certain types of information depending on whom you address the information to, be they friends, colleagues or strangers. Facebook by changing, from one day to the other, the basic assumption on which many people relied upon when they signed up for the service — that your list of contacts and friends is not public information — is deceiving its users.” And by “deception” I refer to the Federal Trade Commission’s definition: a “representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances, to the consumer’s detriment.”

  4. The prickly problem of privacy may have just gotten worse:


    What makes me groan inwardly (even as the capering devil in me wants to point and laugh), is that doubtless somewhere, some marketing affiliates radars are spinning so fast they are smokin’…”now THAT’S a FEATURE…”

    Ms. Rittereiser, thank you for a fantastic response to Mr. Zimmer’s fantastic post. However I can get through to my user base, I will do so.

    (including smacking the next one who thinks it’s cute to “poke” me on Facebook…*sigh*)

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