Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How Facebook Changed The Meaning of "Privacy"

Privacy, privacy, privacy. It's a term you hear a lot nowadays, as the social networks fight it out for marketshare - and for user data. Certainly, personal privacy has always been a major concern on the internet, and is considered important enough by users that most sites voluntarily include privacy policies. Unfortunately, it seems like the meaning of privacy has changed in the last ten years, with the result being that people are no longer nearly as careful with their personal info as they used to be.

The old definition of privacy assumed that you didn't want anybody to see your information without your consent. While we certainly didn't want our friends and family to see our private details, we also didn't want our data to be used by third-party marketing companies - or even the site we were submitting that info to - for their own nefarious purposes. However, the social networking wars have made it absolutely clear that the definition of privacy has changed, and not in a good way.

What do I mean? Well, consider the case of Facebook vs Google+. Facebook, of course, is notorious for being bad on privacy...but Google+ is receiving nothing but praise for its own "privacy" features. By the classic definition of privacy, however, Google is just as bad as Facebook is - if not worse. After all, both sites are in the business of making money off your personal details, both sites actively use your info to "improve the user experience", and both sites make allowances in their privacy policies for sharing your info with third-party "service providers" or "trusted businesses".

While Facebook's privacy policy is somewhat more open to sharing personal information than Google's privacy policy, neither one is bulletproof. Which is important, since both sites store information about you even if you don't use their services at all. And while they both claim to anonymize your data before sharing it, it should be noted that Google's procedures have been declared by European privacy officials to be "insufficient to guarantee adequate anonymisation" and Facebook's procedures are probably just as bad.

So if that's what people don't mean by "privacy" these days, then what do they mean? Well, you can find a nice big hint if you look at Google+'s flagship features. Circles, which grants users precise control over which of their contacts can and can't see each individual post, is clearly the cause of all the praise for Plus.

In other words, while pre-social media privacy meant being able to prevent companies such as marketers and "service providers" from snooping through or selling any of your data without your consent, the modern definition of "privacy" is the ability to choose which people have access to each individual piece of data. Last decade's privacy would mean keeping Google from reading your Gmail and Dropbox from opening files in Dropbox Folder; this decade's privacy settles for merely keeping Google from making your Gmail public unless you opt-in first.

To be fair, that kind of control is certainly important in the age of social media, where careless sharing of information can lead to far worse than just being on a spam list. Indeed, Facebook's constant data control slip-ups have caused plenty of damage to people's lives. But I can't help but feel bothered that the standard for privacy has dropped from "won't show anyone my data, not even employees or marketing partners" to "won't make every detail of my personal life available to world+dog".

And why has the definition changed like that? Well, it's almost certainly Facebook's fault. Not just Facebook, of course - the other social networking sites of the mid-decade period share some blame, as well as Google and other early cloud services. The targeted advertising boom definitely plays a part as well. But there's no contesting that Facebook was really the site that really got most of the world used to sharing our entire lives in an easy-to-read format.

Google did the same, of course, but at least they had to work to read useful data out of emails and search queries; Facebook were the ones that taught us to put everything about ourselves in a nice and neat little database to make info-grabbing as easy as possible. And, of course, Facebook was the site that enraged us by sharing that personal info with the entire world so often that we forgot that there was any other way a website could possibly violate our privacy.

We're simply so battered and worn-down by Facebook's horrible data protection screwups that we're numb to the dismal state of personal privacy today. We don't even care anymore how many companies know where we ate lunch last Tuesday, we just want to be sure that they're not going to post it on their public webpage and announce it to the world without our approval.

What are your thoughts on the subject? With two of the biggest data-collection companies in the world falling all over themselves to gather user feedback on their services as they gear up for what looks to be a no-holds-barred competition for market supremacy, this might just be the perfect time to start a dialogue on privacy. Who knows? Maybe they'll listen. If not, then at least we'll all come out of it having read different perspectives on what privacy really means these days and how much it actually matters.


  1. I think one of the big reasons why our standards of privacy have lessened is because the average Internet user doesn't REALLY believe that he or she can actually keep Google from learning whatever they want to learn. So if it's hopeless, why not just settle for keeping Mom in the dark?

  2. Whether it is positive is still a highly controversial topic.

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