Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Privacy and confidentiality in an increasingly real-time, all the time online world – a reply to a feedback comment to 5-16-2010 posting

Posted in in the News, social networking and business by Timothy Platt on May 22, 2010

I have now posted two times about Facebook and its recent change in policy regarding visibility of user-provided personal information and I have been receiving feedback to that. One comment that I have received through an online group in response to my first of these postings: Facebook and the Importance of Respecting Social Contracts has prompted me to think about the specific issues here with a particular focus. I want to share this comment and my thoughts in response as a blog posting in its own right.

The comment, corrected for a couple of minor typos but otherwise unchanged reads as follows:

“Let’s take the internet out of the picture and look at organic social networks. What is the model? Do we opt in or opt out? Some things are a function of the environment. If we meet someone they will know what we look like, how we behave & how we talk. They will also deduce things about us from what they see, hear and smell. We can not opt out of these “impressions” because they are a function of our physical being. Other things we opt in on. We have the option of telling people a number of things at our discretion knowing that what we say has to make sense. Consider a person who introduces himself as being from Alabama but has a distinct Brooklyn accent. His divulged information will be challenged and rightfully so.

“In any social medium we all act to establish and confirm identities in order to facilitate dialogue. If we allow a medium where everything you enter is purely at your discretion then you have a high risk medium. We would simply not tolerate this in an organic setting so why do you suggest that we have it in an electronic medium. I say that there is too much anonymity in social networks and that creates a medium of unacceptable risk.

“I do however understand the concern over Facebook selling information from its site and this is the issue that I think should be dealt with. Facebook will, of course point out that someone has to pay for the party and since Facebook is a free service then its participants are paying by offering themselves up to the “market”. This is not far from the model of “free TV” in that instead of paying for the service we allow ourselves to be served up to advertisers.

“Marketing is getting more and more focused as communication improves and as citizens, the burden is on us to decide how we want to be treated as consumers. Do you want to pay for access to communication or do you want to let marketers pay for your access by putting billboards up in front of you at every corner? Right now we are so in love with all the technology that we are serving ourselves up not to big brother but to big markets. If that is our choice then we can no more complain about it than we can complain about the endless commercials on TV.”

This comment actually brings up four issues:

1. The simple fact that we both opt-in and opt-out as to sharing personal information in our daily lives and that much of this sharing is carried out automatically and without our control as to how it is assorted into one or the other of these two basic options: opt-in or opt-out.
2. A claim that there is an artificiality in having too much control over message and that this can and does create unacceptable levels of risk for others in assessing our true positions and reliability.
3. A claim that Facebook would claim to have the need and right to finance its web sites and other infrastructure by selling information obtained from individual members and that this in fact may be fair use as those members are receiving value from being able to connect and network through the site. Bringing in revenue by this means, it is argued might limit marketing/spamming.
4. I will also add that this comment seems to equate billboards being aimed at us as members of the Facebook community – us being marketed to, and us ourselves being marketed as product which is what Facebook is doing when our personally identifiable information becomes a commercial product.

As for point one: yes, we do opt-in and opt-out in our information sharing all the time and I will add that every time we meet with someone else or connect in any way with them, information is automatically shared without conscious opt-in or opt-out decision making at all, and even without potential for selecting between types of control. But when online is added in, this potential for sharing changes in a fundamental sense. Online can and usually is asynchronous so information sharing is largely done without anything like immediate context. It is persistent in ways that we almost never see or experience in our more face to face and other off-line encounters. And online and cyberspace do not follow the limits of physical space insofar as potentially anyone can enter into or at least observe any online information sharing – and certainly where it may be posted through a site like Facebook and either by or about some individual.

In the physical world we can have candid and confidential conversations. In the online world we can too, but only where we can be assured of opt-in to control who can be party to this – and only if that opt-in is not breeched to allow any and all to eavesdrop. I cite my second posting on this developing news story here in this context with Facebook’s Opt-Out Personal Information Sharing and Its Impact on Online Reputation and Confidentiality – a Proposed Fix to the Technology Side of This Problem.

Point two, above, raises an important issue and certainly for public figures where members of that public need to be able to do their due diligence on positions claimed and taken and on follow through and reliability. There are some risks from privacy and in allowing consistent and across the board control of message and of confidentiality by the individual, but in most cases I would argue that these are acceptable risks and certainly when compared to the risks we face when we loose the right to confidentiality as a basic option, and across the board. In this, I would argue that a requirement of constant opt-out monitoring effectively constitutes such a loss.

When a social network is pervasive enough in impact as to involve hundreds of millions of members, loss of opt-in for all and for all of their archived information, personal or otherwise carries too large a price for this to be outweighed by any possible gain we might achieve from this new openness. Here, I go back to my comments regarding the first point above. When this sharing is all the time and everywhere and asynchronous so context looses meaning, confidentiality takes on new meaning and value.

I agree completely with the person who shared this comment with me that the Facebook claim of point three is disturbing. There are a wide range of options available to Facebook for generating data and one would be to apply targeted ads to Facebook pages that any given logged in member sees, and whether they are on their own profile pages or those of others – yes, “billboards.” Ad content providers do not need to even know which specific individuals get their specific ads, or if they do receive this information, why they were chosen except in general demographics level terms.

Facebook does not need to aggregate and sell personally identifiable information to make money and profits and I add as an extreme point that it would probably not even need to sell anonymous demographic level data to make a substantial profit. I add that this more anonymous business intelligence is not the issue here though, and that selling this type of demographics-based business intelligence would reduce the pressure to add as many ads to each and every Facebook screen.

No one that I have heard of has tried arguing in any way against use of commercial sharing of anonymous demographics data. Many do complain about banner ads and other content intrusions on their profiles. Facebook did not need to change its policies to assemble and process demographics level business intelligence and offering that as a product would help Facebook as a business and Facebook as an online community find a middle ground that would work for them and for their members.

Making Facebook commercially profitable as a business does not need to be about modifying boundaries as to member privacy and confidentiality. With their new policy it is about completely taking these boundaries down and after the fact for vast amounts of member information. Facebook has a range of business model and revenue generation options that would not adversely impact on individual member confidentiality or privacy and that would work for the company.

As for point four – there is an important difference between marketing to people and marketing those people and their personal information as products.

As one final minor point that I did not add to the above list, I live in Brooklyn and have for years but I don’t have a Brooklyn accent – or an accent from where I was born and initially raised either. With the way we move around as a society, a single, simple litmus test such as accent may not suffice to say where we are from or where we now live and call home. I simply point this out to stress the importance of context, which I add is often missing when data is collected asynchronously and at a distance. Accurate but partial information can be very misleading and that can cause harm. The basic issue here is all about limiting potential for that, which loss of confidentially can cause. And this is, bottom line about our maintaining and preserving our own right not to be someone else’s product and even where that is done in ways that cause us significant potential harm.

2 Responses

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  1. AndrewJZ said, on May 31, 2010 at 4:42 am

    Hello does a regular on here mange to view this forum and view it clearly on their mobile phone eg. iphone? Any assistance gratefully accepted as to which is the best way to view this place on the move. I am looking to change my mobile phone shortly

    • Timothy Platt said, on May 31, 2010 at 3:01 pm

      Hi Andrew,

      Thank you for your email and for highlighting what has to be my biggest single source of frustration with my blog. On the one hand, I write on an ongoing basis about online social networking and the emerging all the time and everywhere of our collective computing and communications capabilities. I see this as constituting a crucial turning point in how we related to others and think about ourselves in the process. On the other, I write essays that seek to explore significantly large chunks of these general areas of discussion to convey meaning and that means I have to write to the hundreds of words per posting or more. Terse and succinct can only go so far if you want a measure of precision and exactitude and if your goal is unambiguous clarity – at least for my more meager writing ability.

      What I write works on a notebook, but you are right that it becomes a difficult read even with as simple a format template as I could find and even discounting that as a source of handheld reading problem.

      Twitter is more handheld-friendly, but there is a reason why I called it haiku marketing in one of my postings (number 3 from last October 18 in my Web 2.0 Marketing series.) I wish I had a simple, straightforward answer to your question/comment but I don’t. Having said that, I would appreciate any shared ideas from other readers and if you have a way to more effectively present web content for the notebook and larger onto handhelds, you hold information and insight of real value to all.

      Thanks again, Tim Platt


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