“Wealth is now defined, at least in part, by the ability to be offline whenever you want” Fernando Gros.
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Blog // Thoughts
May 27, 2010

Thoughts On Digital Privacy

Privacy is a question that attracts constant attention from users of the world wide web. That’s not surprising because the web has always been a social phenomena and privacy is invariably a part of social interactions. Today’s privacy debate is centred around Facebook and Google, whereas fourteen years ago, PointCast and Netscape were attracting all […]

Privacy is a question that attracts constant attention from users of the world wide web. That’s not surprising because the web has always been a social phenomena and privacy is invariably a part of social interactions. Today’s privacy debate is centred around Facebook and Google, whereas fourteen years ago, PointCast and Netscape were attracting all the news (and controversy). In another decade or so the company names will be different again, but the debate about privacy will remain.

I can recall, back in ‘96 being advised to “put nothing on the internet” because “you never know what people will do with it.” It seemed odd advice at the time, since clearly, posting stuff online was not all that different to speaking in public, or putting words in print. Choosing to not publish online was simply a form of retreat that only made sense if you planned to have no public voice. You could only be a digital hermit if you were, in fact, a hermit in real life.

Interestingly, a similar piece of simplistic advice is now being dished out, not by the technological luddites, but by the evangelists of the new digital reality – anyone who really wants privacy should stay off the web.

Those of you who love the English language have probably spotted the flaw in that piece of reasoning right away – privacy, is not the same thing as anonymity.

You can, of course, be private without being anonymous. That’s the cornerstone of most social relationships. We don’t announce every detail of ourselves to everyone we meet. We practice different levels of disclosure (or what we might call intimacy) with different people at different times. We don’t have to retreat from society in order to maintain some level of privacy in our day to day existence.

Many of our social conventions, from how we expect to share important news about our life, through to who we expect see on our doorstep when we collect the mail are built around understandings of privacy. You could go so far as to say that privacy is at the heart of love – we choose not to crush, embarrass or distress those close to us, even though we know many uncomfortable truths about them.

Online applications work best when they help make established patterns of human interaction more efficient. Twitter and LinkedIn are good examples of this, as was Facebook in its early days. It is perhaps revealing that these applications grew fast when their interfaces were simple.

Ambition was behind both Facebook and Google’s privacy faux pas. As Facebook has tried to ramp up its offering, to capture everything and anything worth sharing, so too it has built up a worryingly large database on each user, which they hope to be able to sell to marketers. Google had a good idea with Buzz, but misread the how and why of people’s structured social relationships.

Privacy, is not the same thing as secrecy and it’s real world analogy is not anonymity and seclusion, but control and respect. In human interactions this involves a “choosing not to.” Out friends choose not to make us look bad, even though they know things about us, our past and our mistakes that could be embarrassing. We hope that our friends and family would respect the way we are trying to present ourselves to the world.

Privacy in social interactions exists at this intersection, between the control we try to have over our lives and the trust we need to put in others in order to be able to function without fear. Privacy is a problem online precisely at those points when we lose control over how we can present ourselves (what I call our digital destiny) and when we cannot trust the behaviour of others online; be they fellow users or the gatekeepers to shared information.

Control, trust and the nature of social interaction is a more fruitful debate than privacy. For me, privacy on Facebook stinks, but that isn’t the main reason I quit. What stank even more, for me, was the way people were behaving. There was a private yet public aspect to relationship status changes, soliciting for work/contacts and collapsing the past with the present that was, well, creepy. Foursquare was a cool application, but aspects of the game violated what, for me are norms about social behaviour in public spaces that I rely upon in order to live, work and socialise.

The web works because we love to share, we love to socialise and we love to gather. When the web works best it helps all those things happen not just in cyberspace, but in the real world. The debate about privacy is ultimately about that – a better interface between what keeps us sane and healthy in the real world and online tools to help us live that real world experience more fully.

Responses
Toni 9 years ago

Quite.

And it is quite possible to use facebook (for example) as you intend, rather than as they intend, with a modest amount of forethought and care. Blogging likewise (and I notice you are very careful to never directly use the names of your family on here) and I’m careful never to name my house, dates of holidays, employers etc.

Your point about trust is also good, and one that would benefit a lot of web users if it could be built into the ethos of certain companies instead of a vague committment not to do anything ‘really bad’.

Toni 9 years ago

In the context, this is an interesting link:

http://www.weliveinpublicthemovie.com/about-2/#

Fernando Gros 9 years ago

Toni, I agree there are choices that one can make about how to use Facebook. But, there’s also the issue of how you are tied to other people. I think that, temperamentally I’m not suited to that platform.

I guess we all have to draw the line somewhere, unless we believe in having no lines…

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