Privacy on the social Web: Varying views

By Anne Collier

Our kids – the people who’ve never known life without the Internet – do think about their online privacy, and social technologies are actually giving them “greater control over their information,” writes Heather West at the Center for Democracy and Technology in a Wired blog. She makes an important point about privacy in the new media environment that I think those of us who grew up in the mass-media era need to think about: We think of privacy in a binary way, as “the ability to conceal information from others” – public or private. Period. Internet natives think of privacy as the ability to control how they share information, and to do so in a nuanced way.

West cites two studies showing this, then writes, more anecdotally (and interestingly): “Gone are the days where my friends could see everything I posted on my Facebook page. Now, I am given the opportunity to choose not only what content is public, but who has access to that content. This includes privacy control for photo albums, status updates, and personal information. Truth be told, I am much less comfortable with social sites that do not give me this level of freedom.”

[In this context, it's probably worth mentioning the finding that – despite all the online-safety warnings not to share personal info online – "sharing personal information, either by posting or actively sending it to someone online, is not by itself significantly associated with increased odds of online interpersonal victimization," published in the February 2007 issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Rather, the researchers found, it's aggressive behavior online that significantly increases risk.]

Privacy in 6 social sites

In other important privacy news, Canada’s Office of the Privacy Commissioner recently unveiled a study that looks into privacy protections in six social network sites: Facebook, Hi5, LinkedIn, LiveJournal, MySpace, and Skyrock.

“These sites were selected based on popularity, but also to facilitate the efficacy of the final product by providing an appropriate breadth and diversity to the analysis,” the report said. Aimed at user education more than industry regulation, it does a “comparative analysis” in each of these categories: registration information (e.g., here), real identities vs. pseudonyms, privacy controls, photo tagging, accessibility of user info to others, advertising, data retention, account deletion, third-party applications, and collection of non-user personal information.

The report refers often to the March ’08 “Report and Guidance on Privacy in Social Network Services – Rome Memorandum,” building on the work of the International Working Group on Data Protection in Telecommunications (see this PDF file) spearheaded by data-protection commissioners in a number of countries.

Related links

* A fascinating project at MIT bears out how the societal discussion about privacy needs to get more granular and social-media specific. “Project Gaydar” found that “who we are can be revealed by, and even defined by, who our friends are…. The ability to connect with other people who have something in common is part of the power of social networks, but also a possible pitfall. If our friends reveal who we are, that challenges a conception of privacy built on the notion that there are things we tell, and things we don’t,” the Boston Globe reports. There’s a lot in the article, too, about the state of research being done in social network sites.
* A view from another generation – that of Andrea DiMaio in the Gartner Blog Network. Note the interesting comment below it about how, “in a world awash in information,” as it is now, “a paradoxical effect is that many people know far less than they did before.”
* The Pew/Internet Project’s December 2007 teen-online-privacy findings (the latest available).


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