I was getting worried, because about two months had gone by without the words “Facebook” and “privacy” appearing in almost every technology article in my RSS feed. But then, Facebook was nice enough to launch Places, giving the blogosphere a whole new reason to include “Facebook” and “privacy” in every tech piece. The world is back to normal; everyone’s talking about Facebook and privacy again.
Concern over privacy is a topic that has reared its head with frequency as we’ve become increasingly reliant on digital technologies. Back in 1999, Scott McNealy then CEO of Sun Microsystems famously said, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it,” in the midst of a brouhaha over personally identifiable information on Intel Pentium III chips. Then in 2003, it was the new accessibility of public information, like court records, that made the headlines. It seems quaint, but even Facebook’s initial launch of the newsfeed sparked big privacy concerns.
Business interests have always had powerful economic incentives to end our privacy. Behavioral targeting is only the latest evolution of direct marketing techniques that rely on knowing as much as possible about an individual and delivering relevant marketing messages to that person. But the ugly truth is that behavioral targeting wouldn’t fill the coffers of corporate America if consumers didn’t like it. When ads are well targeted, consumers click on them more and better respond to the marketing messages. Instinctively, I may not like the idea that a publisher knows I’m in the market for a new car, but I’m sure happy when I see an ad for a car that seems interesting to me. It may seem creepy that Google tailors ads based on what I search for and what’s in my email, but that doesn’t stop me from reading and clicking on the text ads. As soon as an advertisement is relevant and the information is useful to my life, it’s no longer an advertisement. It’s the convenient delivery of information. Our erosion of privacy makes this possible.
The same can be said for the erosion of privacy with respect to information people can access online about me. I may not like the idea that my friends can “check me in” when I’m with a group of friends, but Facebook Places sure is useful when I want to find where my buddies are hanging out. It may be jarring that people can tag my identity in photographs, but being able to quickly see who is in what picture is quite useful. Some people may still not like that their court records, home records, political donations and other personal files are now available at the click of the mouse — unless they’re evaluating a home for purchase or want to see who is funding a political candidate. A personal example: I make my calendar widely available to my colleagues at HUGE. The benefit: I spend no time managing my calendar.
A transparent society delivers levels of information and service that were never before possible and are highly desirable. The price is a loss of privacy. And it’s a trade people are getting more comfortable making. After all, we’ve been consistently moving toward transparency, not away from it, in spite of the semi-annual privacy debate. This spring Facebook didn’t change the level of privacy it offers, it just made the settings easier to personalize. And as younger generations grow up, the privacy flap will simply no longer exist because people will be used to living in a transparent world. The feeling of vulnerability caused by the worry, “people know everything about me,” will go away. The fear of embarrassing information getting out will become meaningless. We all do crazy things at parties and make gaffes, and it will all be recorded. We’ll all be on the same level playing field. Societal norms will eventually shift so today’s bad behavior will become tomorrow’s collective shrug, just as Lucy Ricardo’s pregnancy on I Love Lucy was once so shocking the word “pregnancy” could not be used.
The only real cause for concern in a truly transparent society are security and safety issues: identity theft, people harming my kids, people robbing my home. But I have faith that technology will inevitably solve these issues.
And so, to those still worried about their own privacy, I would make a suggestion: stop using features that benefit from transparency and start a movement to get everyone else do the same thing. It’s the only way to truly stop the privacy erosion tide. But my guess is that after a day without Google, Google Maps, Facebook, FourSquare, Amazon, and every ad-supported content site, you may conclude that losing a little privacy isn’t so bad.
And so, as today’s privacy debate fades away and we look forward to the next round of Web innovation/privacy outrage (could it be for Google Me?), remember this: when the loss-of-privacy outrage dies, we’ll likely be left with a new set of services we’ll all love.