Talking privacy at the household & international levels

By Anne Collier

We – all of us (well, maybe all of us above the age of around 28) – are in a very uncomfortable place where personal privacy’s concerned. It seems all of our children are social Web users and we all have growing digital footprints ourselves, whether we’re on Facebook or not, and we’re pretty uneasy about the implications of all this intentional and inadvertent sharing for us as well as our kids. The Wall Street Journal investigates social networking privacy breaches (see this) and TechCrunch suggests that story is unintended cover for “the real privacy scandal … the feds’ spying” on social site users.” An international conference on the subject in Jerusalem this past week illustrated our collective confusion about how to protect greater openness and privacy at the same time. Participants (national privacy commissioners, regulators, industry, etc.) spoke of how “longstanding privacy norms are being increasingly challenged by the massive popularity of social networks” and “were asked to question whether privacy norms are at a breaking point with conventional laws, regulations and principles rendered irrelevant in the face of the generational and technological shift,” reports University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist in the Toronto Star. Jules Polonetsky and Christopher Wolf of the Washington-based Future of Privacy Forum wrote in the Huffington Post that US law brings to the global discussion a uniquely “focused and flexible” that has led to “better privacy protection [in these digital times] than ever” – and, “interestingly,” they say, “the idea of self-regulation is gaining a foothold of sorts in the EU, just as legislative proposals for comprehensive privacy law been introduced in the US Congress.”

Professor Geist says protecting everybody’s privacy and publicity at the same time isn’t as impossible as at seems: “At least three strategies to address both desires emerged”: 1) the idea of default social networking settings that start with greater privacy and allow users to be as public as they choose (rather than making the default public); 2) better user education (e.g., we at ConnectSafely are about to co-publish a Parents’ Guide to Facebook; and 3) regulation – “although it will invariably lag behind the rapid pace of technology,” Geist writes.

I do think social network sites need to employ more-private defaults, at least for minors, while we’re all figuring out new privacy-protection norms (e.g., asking friends’ permission before posting photos that include them), but I do think regulation is not just laggy but also a blunt instrument at a time with policymakers and regulators at least as confused as parents about how to protect young people’s online privacy (or not wearing their parent hats enough!). User education is best because it happens at every level, from international to household, and can be calibrated to the pace of change in both technology and children. Friending your kids on Facebook and looking at privacy settings together is prime media-literacy education, parents! And we’ll get past this, people – pretty soon our digitally less confused children will be policymakers and parents as well as social networkers.

Related links

* “The Many Faces of You” in the New York Times about how adults are learning to put up digital firewalls and otherwise navigate the social-networking mashup of work and the rest of life * “Fictionalizing their profiles” about young people’s strategies for dealing with the online mashup of real friends and acquaintances
* “Facebook privacy flap: Some upsides” (one upside I didn’t mention there is the unprecedented insights being friends with our kids in social sites can give us into their lives – see this recent study, which found that more than a third of teen Facebook users asked their parents to friend them in the site, and 86% of parent FB users have friended their kids in the site.
* “Social Web privacy: A new kind of social contract we’re all signed onto”
* Last week’s “Our children’s digital dossiers”

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