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.