Web Privacy: In Praise of Oversharing

The Web is making us more intimate strangers. Why going public can be a civic good

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Donna Ferrato

Resident of the Capsule Hotel applies eye makeup in her pod in 1999.

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It is tempting to look at these case studies and conclude that the whole concept of privacy is teetering on the edge of obsolescence. The encryption visionaries used to talk about the importance of keeping your purchase history private; now new startups like Swipely and Blippy let users automatically publish all of their purchases online. Instead of worrying about some ominous surveillance state tracking our movements, we now check-in at locations using the booming location-based social network, Foursquare, announcing to our friends (and strangers) the moment we arrive at the bar, with exact geographic coordinates attached.

Consider the way Facebook has steadily eroded its default privacy settings over the past five years. When the service first launched in 2005, its privacy policy created a virtual fortress around your personal data: "No personal information that you submit to Thefacebook," its terms of service read, "will be available to any user of the Web Site who does not belong to at least one of the groups specified by you in your privacy settings." In other words, in the original Facebook universe, anyone who was interested in getting to know you was effectively treated like a vampire: he had to be invited in first. Over the past five years, however, the fortress around your personal information has turned into a drive-through. Late last year, the company announced that a long list of personal details — everything from your profile photo, your friends and fan pages, your gender, your geographic region, and the networks you belong to — were "considered publicly available to everyone."

Yet consumers have responded to that steady erosion of default privacy by flocking to Facebook in staggering numbers. Earlier this year, Facebook unseated Google as the most popular web site for U.S. visitors. The Facebook trend suggests that it's not simply that we are indifferent to these privacy encroachments — instead, we're actively embracing them. The trend has been dubbed Zuckerberg's Law, after a oft-tweeted quote from the Facebook founder: "I would expect that next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before."

But we shouldn't be too quick to declare the death of privacy. In recent weeks a public backlash has been brewing against Facebook's privacy transgressions, with a number of high-profile tech sector figures blogging about their frustration with the service, and more than a few announcing that they've deleted their accounts. When Google introduced its social network, Google Buzz, earlier this year, it was immediately pilloried for making its users e-mail contacts public by default. Google quickly changed the default configurations, but the controversy badly damaged the product's launch.

Meanwhile, Facebook seems to have been rewarded for being more promiscuous with our personal information. But the service has also greatly expanded and refined the controls that it offers for regulating just what gets exposed to your extended network and beyond. There are now more than 30 distinct controls on Facebook that govern your public exposure. You can configure your account so that the entire world views your bio and your interests, but only immediate friends have access to your photos and religious views. There's even an ex-girlfriend-blocker that lets you prevent a specific person from seeing certain information, even if you set it to be viewed by everyone. Ten years ago, the idea of a privacy dashboard in a software application was unheard of. Today, Facebook's privacy controls look like something out of the cockpit of an Airbus 380.

"Fundamental, privacy is about having control over the flow of information," the social network scholar, danah boyd, argued in a much-discussed speech this spring at Austin's South by Southwest conference. "It's about being able to understand the social setting in order to behave appropriately. To do so, people must trust their interpretation of the context, including the people in the room and the architecture that defines the setting. When they feel as though control has been taken away from them or when they lack the control they need to do the right thing, they scream privacy foul."

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