No one can deny that social media sites like Facebook have drastically transformed not just how we interact with one another socially, but also what it means to have an online identity. There is even a movie (The Social Network) coming out soon about Facebook’s roots in Harvard’s college experience, an indication of the increasing role that online networking plays in our social, personal, and professional lives.
But the upcoming film also references a much more contentious issue, an emerging trend that industry leaders and media pundits have begun commenting on more fervently in recent months: the changing landscape of internet privacy, and, more precisely, the handling of internet users’ personal data.
In an interview last month with The Wall Street Journal, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt made a particularly controversial state¬ment that provokes serious thought on how we, as students entering an increasingly digital, social-media-centric age, should think about internet privacy.
From Holmin W. Jenkins Jr.’s article in The Wall Street Journal on his interview with Schmidt:
“I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time,” [Schmidt] said.
He predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name upon reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.
At first, I was quite angered by Schmidt’s comment. How dare he paternalistically argue that we should change our names because of lax privacy and regulatory policies that he himself, along with other influential industry leaders, furthered to make his services more profitable.
There are other companies besides Google who have ushered in an era of looser definitions of privacy, Facebook being a notable example. The company has mishandled user privacy throughout its existence, such as the lack of comprehensive privacy settings when it released the home page News Feed, and the outcry surrounding the now shut-down Beacon advertising platform, which automatically updated users’ statuses with information about their purchasing history.
Facebook’s most notable privacy decision, though, were changes to its Terms of Service earlier this year that made it seem as if Facebook owned any data uploaded to the site; not, as is generally assumed, the users themselves. Facebook simultaneously announced the universal “Like” button, which can be easily embedded in most websites’ code to allow Facebook users to instantly share what they’re viewing on the internet to their friends.
This was no coincidence. Despite the clear privacy concerns involved with Facebook owning all the photos, wall posts, notes, videos, and other content you share with your friends, the company wants to make as much user information public as possible so it can be more easily linked with targeted advertising.
Given all I’ve said so far, the future, privacy-lax culture Google and Facebook are quickly advancing us towards must sound pretty Orwellian. However, there is another side to this whole issue that could give us a more nuanced perspective on the changing landscape of Internet privacy, and allow us to begin devising ways to constructively adapt to these changes.
After I quelled my initial frustration with Schmidt’s comments, I realized that his provocative statement drew attention to both the negative and positive consequences of a world “when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time.” I thought of how much easier it is now to find connections among diverse topics through Wikipedia, to access primary sources for research papers through Google Books, and to keep up with friends from across the globe through Facebook.
Whether we like it or not, such conveniences cannot exist without some sacrifice concerning the privacy of our information. This sacrifice is what permits us to lay the foundation for a future based on the public, virtual sharing of information. Such a shift would be, and has already been, beneficial for people all over the world—from affluent residents of New York City searching for restaurant recommendations on-the-fly, to children of Kibera requiring cheap, easy access to basic education.
If we briefly apply this balanced perspective to the newly emerging trend of location-based data, we can begin to understand why the issue of internet privacy is quite complex. Location-based data is the process of linking personal information about a user to their current location, opening up a variety of possibilities: instant reviews of nearby restaurants, virtual comparison shopping for stores near you, and awareness of where your friends are at the moment, just to name a few.
Of course, with that convenience comes the knowledge that your exact location is uploaded to company-owned servers, and potentially processed to deliver location-based advertising. Foursquare and Gowalla are the big players in the space, but everyone wants in. Google is looking for ways to integrate location-based data into their already popular Google Maps, pulling information they know from your other Google services to tell you what you want before you even search for it. Facebook, with its new Facebook Places service, presumably wants to leverage information about who your friends are to eventually provide personally tailored recommendations.
People have already proven that they want the benefits that come from new services such as these, despite the potential loss in privacy. After all, virtually all of us log onto Facebook and search on Google regularly, regardless of temporary public outrages that erupted in the past about user privacy.
Having said that, there are certainly alternative platforms that allow you to maintain more control over your personal information.
Diaspora, which will launch on September 15, is a social-networking platform designed to oppose all that Facebook stands for, providing full user control over their information, comprehensive privacy settings, and an open software platform. But I would be surprised if most people will log out of their Facebook profiles long enough to even take notice.
What will likely prove more effective than adopting fringe platforms is utilizing knowledge of the technical, social, and cultural facets of the debate over internet privacy to make informed decisions about which services to use, how to use them, and when it is appropriate to take a stand for user privacy.
Ben Parr, now a writer on the popular blog Mashable.com, took a stand as college student. He started the Facebook group “Students Against Facebook News Feed (Official Petition to Facebook)” right when Facebook introduced the News Feed. He never wanted the News Feed to be removed, but instead called for much more comprehensive privacy controls concerning what was shared on the News Feed. Once the group reached 750,000 members, 10 percent of all of Facebook’s members at the time, Mark Zuckerberg apologized to the public, and Facebook quickly im-plemented more thorough privacy controls for the News Feed.
Parr’s story proves that we all can participate in revising society’s shifting notions of internet privacy, as long as we stay informed and are ready to accept positive changes, fight negative ones, and compromise when absolute privacy stands in the way of greater social good. Hopefully, such compromise will never require us to change our own names.