Thursday, April 29, 2010

Facebook and online privacy

I've been thinking about last week's kerfuffle over Facebook's "Instant Personalization" and the concerns it raised over online privacy. One thing that struck me was the dichotomy in the reactions expressed in the comments threads of nearly every online discussion of it.

On the one hand, you had people like the ones writing the blog posts and online articles, and commenters like me, who were various flavors of annoyed at Facebook once again finding ways to make money off of our private information that we thought we'd protected, and forcing us to go digging through account settings to find all the places we needed to change the new defaults so that our private information is protected again. For now, anyway. Until the next time. And on the other hand, you had the commenters who seemed completely dismissive of the whole idea of private information. After all, the online experience is much richer and more entertaining if you and your friends can see all of each other's likes, dislikes, interests, activities...and after all, what's the big deal? What need for this obsessive secrecy about basic information? One commenter explicitly said that privacy is dead and it's no loss, an old-fashioned idea for old-fashioned people who just don't get this whole new online world.

Some of this is the inexperience and lack of judgment of young people who have not yet lost out on, or realized they lost out on, a job or another opportunity because an employer discovered their Facebook pictures of the keg party that got out of hand. Or who do not yet know personally anyone whose identity was stolen, with disastrous consequences for their credit rating and sometimes their employability. One recent example that perhaps few people will feel much sympathy for, but which offers a useful lesson, would be some of the high school students in Mississipi who were involved in the "secret prom" after their high school canceled the official prom rather than allow one girl to take her girlfriend as her official date. The school had, officially, backed down and scheduled a prom---but Constance and her girlfriend and half a dozen other students were the only ones who attended it. The rest of the class attended another event the same night, which publicly they said was "not a prom, just a private party." Unfortunately, several of them posted pictures on their Facebook pages that looked remarkably like prom pictures, and in their comments and status updates described it as a prom. Since they had been allowing everyone to see everything on their Facebook pages, quite a number of sites and individuals captured screenshots and copied pictures before the kids finally woke up and locked down their Facebook accounts. This carelessness will probably affect the court case underway, and will like follow them and be an embarrassment and something of an obstacle for years to come.

The point is not that these students are especially vile and wicked. We all do stupid things, too many of us do unkind and morally dishonest things, when we are young and foolish and the world hasn't taught us empathy yet. The point is that not thinking about their privacy settings, assuming that privacy is an old-fashioned concern irrelevant to the wired-from-birth generation, made this particular unkind act public in a way that is going to embarrass them for years to come.

Situations that more naturally inspire our sympathy include identity theft facilitated by the easy availability of many details of an individual's personally identifying information, but it's the same problem. Carelessness about who may be looking at your personal information that you thought was private can lead to seriously unfortunate consequences. And when Facebook and other social networking sites, as useful and entertaining as they are, compound inattention and inexperience on the part of the user by actively seeking to make it hard for individuals to protect their information, the consequences can be very bad.

You can't enjoy the benefits of online life without some sharing of information, including maybe some sharing of information that in a perfect world you might prefer not to put out there. Further, I honestly do think that there's a grain of truth in the belief that this is a difference in generational attitudes. My generation happily discusses in public things that would have made our grandparents blush to discuss in private. The wired-from-birth generation does not regard as private all the information that my generation considers private. But those are choices that ought to be made by the individual user, on an opt-in basis, what risks they are willing to take in exchange for what benefits.

Control should be with the individual, not with the corporation trying to profit from the individual's information.