Thursday, January 28, 2010

Privacy, Revisited

Today is Data Privacy Day; Congress voted quietly last year to have the United States join Europe in designating January 28 as an annual, international holiday to raise awareness about the importance of data privacy protection.

Make no mistake: the privacy debate is hotter (and louder) than ever. The recent uproar over Facebook's new Terms of Service—and then, even more recently, Twitter's new service terms—"is all about privacy," says Georgetown University law professor Marc Rotenberg. "It's not the old-fashioned parchment scroll, carried by courier on horseback from the castle to the king's army notion of privacy," says Rotenberg, the director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit he founded in 1994 to address the Internet's impact on society's traditional notions of privacy. "This is "modern-day privacy, about digital identity, the control of personal information, and the brewing battle between what we post and its commercial value." [For more on Rotenberg's views, see his essay that ran recently in The Huffington Post, suggesting that "we give up personal information all the time but that doesn't (nor should) end the discussion over privacy." That, says Rotenberg, is where the discussion begins.]

Just don't tell the social media executives meeting in Davos this week. There, halfway 'round the world from Rotenberg's Washington, D.C., office—and while Rotenberg was commemorating Data Privacy Day in press briefings and other talks elsewhere—the chiefs of Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Ning and LinkedIn squeezed into a small, packed anteroom at the World Economic Forum to share their predictions for social networks, discuss their impact on society (for better or worse) and ponder why their companies hadn't yet figured out a way to make big money off their subscriber's digital social connections.

Tim Berners-Lee, the British physicist who invented the World Wide Web, told the Davos gathering that "little changes in how your treat privacy can dramatically affect the way a social network works." He said that in eBay's case, for example, the site has increased privacy in some areas as the online auction site has matured. The site now hides the identity of people bidding against each other. Younger users, though, seem far more open to revealing personal details about themselves.

Then it was Reid Hoffman's turn. The executive chairman and founder of LinkedIn told the group: "All these concerns about privacy tend to be old people's issues." Transparency and accessibility are two reasons, he said, that so many younger users—teenagers and young adults—put their mobile phones on Facebook or MySpace. "The value of being connected and transparent is so great," Hoffman said, that privacy is not a concern but a hindrance.

Rotenberg wasn't present. But Don Tapscott, author of books on the so-called Net Generation and the need for corporate transparency in the Digital Age, took Hoffman on. Social networking, Tapscott said, would become what "we want it to be" over time, meaning that if we wish to build civic values into social network sites, we will—and should. "[The Internet] has an awesome neutrality and we need to build into it basic human values," Tapscott said. "...And one of those values is the right to informational privacy and the right to be left alone. I completely reject this view that privacy is dead. It's in deep trouble, it needs to be saved and everyone needs to get involved to protect their own information."

Indeed. [Says Rotenberg: "I smile every time someone says privacy is dead or the Facebook generation doesn't care about privacy. If there is one issue that people feel passioantely about today, that literally unites everyone who goes on line, it is the interest in privacy. And the battle is just beginning."]

What do you think? Is privacy an "old people's issue" or more about civil liberties in the 21st century? Let us hear from you.

—Marcia Stepanek


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