Mistakes used to evaporate, for the most part. Now, they can go viral on the Internet, or remain searchable, like a cloud that follows us around for our entire life.
That’s one of the points made about privacy in a discussion in The Observer, a British Sunday paper, between Tom Chatfield, who writes about digital culture, and Joss Wright, who researches privacy technologies at Oxford University. Spurred by Google’s recent revamp of its privacy policies, the two focus on the Internet’s challenge to us as people who are defined in part by our data.
“…we do not yet fully understand the power of the data we have shared … by unwittingly giving this information to Google, Facebook and others we are shaping the future of our society in ways we cannot predict,” writes Wright.
Chatfield agrees, but notes that ”granting and respecting privacy of various kinds is becoming a vital part of most business strategies reliant on users’ goodwill, attention and effort.”
He thinks most companies don’t want to misuse personal data, but don’t know where to draw a line.
In the meantime, we get real pleasure from the connections we can make online, and the convenience of the medium. As Wright says, “the pleasures of social networking are real and tangible whereas the privacy risks tend to seem far away. From a corporate perspective the profits are equally real, and the risks of privacy violations remain as far away.”
Chatfield asks whether we should try to spend all our time in a walled garden, like Apple’s. Wright thinks that’s dangerous. “I’m asking for the internet to be open and free for individuals, but restricted for corporations.”
Utopian? Perhaps. They agree that as with the real-world environmental movement, in the digital world, it is hard to figure out bounds. Chatfield says we don’t know what to do “when a problem—however menacing—is nebulous and as yet fully to unfold.”
Part of this debate is playing out in Ireland, where Max Schrems, an Austrian law student, lodged nearly two dozen complaints about Facebook with the Irish Office of the Data Commissioner (Facebook Europe is based in Ireland). Broadly, Schrems said Facebook was violating EU guidelines about what it can do with personal data. After an audit in December, Facebook must alter a number of its data handling practices, and will face another audit in July.
Are privacy advocates Chicken Little or Cassandra? Or somewhere in between? Read their discussion and see what you think.