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Privacy in the Time of Facebook

Dana Boyd Jpeg

Pop culture commentator Latoya Peterson, a WMC Progressive Women's Voices alumna, explains how we make assumptions about privacy at our own peril in the world of social networking.

"Privacy is dead!"

This is a common refrain among the digerati, and the people who make and create the social innovations and networks that changed forever the way we use the internet. Still, it seems fair to ask the question, how is all this information we share about ourselves while social networking being used–where we live, where we went to school, our likes and dislikes?

Over the last month, Facebook made headlines for controversial changes to its privacy policy. The Wall Street Journal had revealed a loophole in the coding of both Facebook and MySpace's ad software that allowed advertisers to potentially access very personal information and identify individual users. Though both companies denied consciously delivering this information, Facebook decided to pre-empt further problems with sweeping changes that essentially allowed anyone on the internet (including advertisers) to gain access to "general information" including name, friends, gender, and connections. (The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a year by year breakdown of how Facebook began as a space based on privacy and expanded to is current state). The changes were so badly received by the public at large that CEO Mark Zuckerberg felt the need to take to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post in order to convince consumers that their information was still secure. While Facebook clarified their aims, many users and consumer advocates still find themselves feeling overly exposed by Facebook’s decision.

The battle over privacy and internet information has been raging for years. However, the conversation is not happening much outside of tech sectors, and many users do not understand what is at stake. Interestingly, women are leading the charge to protect users and their privacy, either by illuminating bad policies or directly challenging companies to change their practices. Social media researcher Danah Boyd is at the forefront of the fight for privacy. A fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, she has spent most of her career working with teenagers and others who are not as technologically savvy as the creators of these systems. Boyd has noticed that most users seldom understand privacy, permissions, and the commitments involved in lengthy terms of service.

In her March keynote address to South by Southwest Interactive (months before the current scandal broke), Boyd argued that making information public is not the same as publicizing your information. In short, many users take to Facebook as a way to stay in touch with their friends and family. The information they share there was not intended for use by advertisers, bosses, and other passers by. For example, you may be fine telling your friends about a particularly messy break up, but would be mortified if your boss was privy to those details.

Scrutinizing the shift in the default setting for privacy, Boyd explains that in our personal life, we are generally private but we can make things public with some effort. The internet subverts that dynamic, assuming all our information is public, unless we specifically chose otherwise. Companies have cashed in on this tension in various ways: while many services used to ask users to opt-in to new products or uses of their personal data, now many services make the decision for you, requiring an opt-out. Marketers use a similar tactic with other consumer products–as when banks require an action to stop them from charging your credit card, instead of asking for permission in the first place. Boyd is quick to note that companies are technically within their rights to do this, however she argues these actions are not ethical.

In response to the claim that people who have nothing to hide shouldn't mind losing some measure of privacy, Boyd offered some interesting examples at SXSW:

But... Imagine being an immigrant whose family came here illegally thirty years ago when you were six months old. You don't speak the native tongue of your ancestors, have never been back to the country in which you were born. You are petrified of being deported. Are you comfortable telling your story in public?

Or... Imagine that you left an abusive relationship (one of the hardest things to do). You're working two jobs to make ends meet for you and your kids. You're exhausted, but your biggest fear is that your ex will find out where you are and hurt you and/or your kids again. How public do you want to be?

She said these two examples were from actual people she had met. They, like many others, are "concerned about how these new technologies are reshaping their worlds."

Another person, blogging anonymously with the screen name Harriet J, illustrated the issues surrounding another privacy debacle involving Google Buzz, also an example of the switch to forcing users to opt-out instead of opt-in. The Gmail linked service, which allowed users to see each other’s shared content (like photos, status updates, and links), was launched with pre-selections made by the Google system as to whom you want to communicate with, based on how often you contacted them. The major issue here is that Google, as a company, assumed that all contacts were friendly ones.

During the height of the confusion around Buzz, Harriet J posted an unflinchingly clear edict to her blog, Fugitivus, describing why Google's allowing frequent contacts access to her "Reader" was so devastating. In just four lines, she clinches the reason why so many online should be concerned about privacy:

I use my private Gmail account to email my boyfriend and my mother.

There’s a BIG drop-off between them and my other "most frequent" contacts.

You know who my third most frequent contact is?

My abusive ex-husband.

These major companies make a lot of assumptions when they are developing new products. But as Boyd and Harriet J pointed out, our lives are complicated. Digital technology companies have done a lot to make our lives easier and more manageable. But situations like Facebook and Google Buzz show that far more of us must make a larger effort to understand exactly what we are agreeing to, before we put our lives online.

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