Open Thinkering


Some thoughts about online privacy.


You may have missed it, but there’s a privacy debate going on as we enter a new decade.* I wanted to share my thoughts, as I think there’s some confused thinking going on.

Usually, when people think of ‘privacy’ they’re actually conflating three notions:

  1. Privacy – not being seen by others
  2. Anonymity – not being identified by others
  3. Ownership – the ability to control things

These are different and should be considered separately.

A lot of digital ink has been spilled recently over changes made by Facebook, the world’s most popular social networking site. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, claimed privacy is ‘no longer a social norm’ which prompted some nods of agreement, but also some vehement criticism. The ever-eloquent danah boyd pretty much sums up the backlash:

There isn’t some radical shift in norms taking place. What’s changing is the opportunity to be public and the potential gain from doing so. Reality TV anyone? People are willing to put themselves out there when they can gain from it. But this doesn’t mean that everyone suddenly wants to be always in public. And it doesn’t mean that folks who live their lives in public don’t value privacy. The best way to maintain privacy as a public figure is to give folks the impression that everything about you is in public.

It’s this control over the public/private debate that is often conflated with anonymity and ownership. And it’s not just media hacks that get this wrong, it’s people with letters after their name. Dr Kieron O’Hara, for example, believes that online life distorts privacy rights for all:

As more private lives are exported online, reasonable expectations are diminishing… When our reasonable expectations diminish, as they have, by necessity our legal protection diminishes.

This effectively takes an argument reserved for celebrities (‘you live by the sword, you die by the sword’) and applies it to everyone else. Not so.

Most of what people object to in the name of ‘privacy’ online is merely technology making something that’s always been done easier or faster.

  • Object to being ‘tagged’ in a photo on Facebook? Did you likewise object when people passed around printed photos of you at a gathering back-in-the-day?
  • Don’t like your phone number being posted online? Is it ex-directory?
  • Not a fan of Google Street View? Do you stop people walking by your house and taking pictures of the local area?

I would argue that no-one has a ‘right’ to anonymity in anything apart from legal proceedings. To attempt to do so – even in an analogue world – is unrealistic.

Recently, I received a suggestion via Skribit that I blog about how I deal with ‘having such a public web presence’ coupled with the tendency of students to ‘google their teachers’. The question seems to be about privacy: do you really want students to know everything about you?

The answer to that can be summed up in one word: control. I am my own media outlet. It doesn’t cost me anything but time to do so. Of course I have secrets, my dark side, things that I don’t want people to find out. But I can control what is said about me. Google Alerts emails me when my name is mentioned somewhere on the internet. If it’s defamatory or negative, I give my side of the story, try and work things out. It’s no different than going to the village gossip to set things straight.

I moderate comments on my YouTube videos, I keep most photos of my family away from public viewing areas on Flickr, and not all of my Delicious links are available for viewing by everyone. That’s why I like Aza Raskin’s idea of a Creative Commons for Privacy. Just as Creative Commons licenses have made it absolutely clear under what conditions you can re-use someone’s artistic work or media (see the top of this post), so a similar system for privacy would give unambiguous recourse for privacy violations. People will tend towards openness, of course they will.

But then I’m not so sure that people being open, controlling their digital identity and learning how to respect the wishes of others is such a bad thing. It’s all about being clear and unamibugous.

Further reading:

*Technically, the decade doesn’t start until 2011, but everyone’s acting like it’s already started. Who am I to spoil the party? 😉

4 thoughts on “Some thoughts about online privacy.

  1. Thanks for the post. You make some very valid points. I think a lot of it comes down to an individual’s personality. There are those of us who are naturally more extrovert than others, and feel happy sharing their lives publicly on the internet. And there are those of us who would rather that the whole world did not know our business. I don’t think we can say one way is right and the other isn’t.
    Personally, I do object to photos of me being tagged on Facebook. I chose not to have a Facebook account. If you are going to display a picture of me, it would be courteous to ask first, and respect my decision to either agree or not. This was no different to old fashioned photos being passed around. I have no objection to others seeing the pics if I know who those others are, but I wouldn’t be inclined to share photos of me, say, from a fancy dress party with my high school students, and there are several colleagues who have those same students as friends on Facebook.
    I live in Asia, and people frequently stop us and ask to take photos of our fair, blue-eyed children. I always say no, politely. When our kids are old enough to decide for themselves and appreciate the potential consequences of saying yes, it will be their call.
    I don’t have my name and number in the directory either.
    You could be forgiven for thinking I am antisocial. Maybe in cyberspace I am, though not in person!
    Keep up the thought-provoking blogging. I like to be made to think about why I think the way I do!

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nadine. Some questions:

      – What would you do if someone took a picture of your kids *without* asking?
      – Would you consider going on Facebook to ‘untag’ yourself from photos?

      1. Hi Doug

        Sorry it’s taken a while to reply. Partly insanely busy at work, and partly I’ve been mulling over the answers. My honest response to your very good question is I don’t know. I am sure that my kids have been photographed without my knowing, or being asked. If I actually saw that happen, I think I have to say it would depend on who or where it was. But I’m not certain how I would deal with it. Perhaps I would ask them not to take any more, but as to whether I would actually request that they delete it – not sure.
        In response to the second question, I think I may if I knew there was a particular photo on there that I objected to. I can see the argument that says that if I am on facebook/myspace I can control what is on there, and as I think about my young children growing up, then I may have to reevaluate my current stance.

  2. I agree and disagree. The photo example: it’s different in the fact that those paper photos were probably passed around at a family get-together. And as Nadine mentioned, those pictures may not be pictures you want to share with students or certain colleagues.

    But, yes, it’s def a risk you take when you create an online presence. But just because you want an online presence to either connect with friends, expand visibility for a business or brand, or other reasons, should you be forced to sacrifice privacy?

    There may be certain info you want to share with certain people but not others. There may be certain info you want to give the site for various reasons but you want the expectation of it being private. And this isn’t a problem just on social networks, it’s a problem when you simply surf the web. Privacy issues go way deeper, we’re just scratching the surface here.

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