Trading Our Privacy

In Rousseau’s social contract, people surrendered part of their autonomy to a central authority in order to gain the benefits of civil society, not least among which were social order and personal security.  In the Internet’s social contract, we seem to have given up our bargaining power.  All too often we surrender our privacy because of laziness and inertia.  Of course, we dress it up by claiming that a loss of privacy is the cost of increased efficiency.  Thanks to the open way we transact much of our social and personal business online, there is very little that can’t be found out about us with minimal effort. Given the ubiquity of Google, much of our lives are discoverable by Google.  Your e-mail?  Google has it.  Your social media exchanges?  Google is indexing those as well.

I don’t mean to pick on Google.  Let’s look at Facebook.  People flock to that platform daily, jump in with both feet, and start recording the minutiae of their lives in this public forum.  How many of them bother to look at, much less do something about, the privacy options Facebook provides? And, what about all those online retailers who know not only what you buy, but what catches your interest as you browse their inventory.

Did we mean for this to happen?  Should we just roll-over and take it or is this something we should fight?

I’ve posted below a video from Google that discusses their alternative to the Internet’s lack of privacy.  Google calls it the Opt-Out Village.  While the video is tongue-on-cheek, it does provide a sobering reminder of how much of our privacy we’ve surrendered.  I suspect Google considers privacy an over-valued relic of the past.  And, based on our recent behavior, it’s hard not to reach that conclusion.  But is that a fair conclusion?  On the other hand, do we deserve privacy when we seem to value it so little?

Google’s Opt-Out Village:

[Hat tip to Neil Richards for passing on the Google video link.)

[Photo Credit:  Mikey G Ottawa]

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5 thoughts on “Trading Our Privacy

  • August 19, 2009 at 3:50 pm
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    Mary –

    I don't think privacy is over-valued. After all, we are largely choosing what we publish online. The first step is making information available. We choose that information. If a service asks too much, I don't enter.

    To a large extent we still control the information. We are not surrendering it to a central authority, but instead are dispersing it to multiple sources. The web enables publishing. Its not a central authority publishing information.

    For someone like you who self-publishing so much information, you are controlling that flow.

  • August 20, 2009 at 8:34 am
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    Doug –

    You're right that we do have control over what we choose to put online. However, online providers don't make it easy. Some folks have resorted to white lies in order to get past a mandatory section of a provider's registration form that seem too intrusive. Further, lots of folks don't exercise lawyerly caution when it comes to putting their personal material online. They might be shocked to discover how much a stranger can learn about them with relatively simple online research.

    Yes, we do have choices. But I'm not sure that folks appreciate the lengths they might have to go to in order to protect their privacy AND participate online. And, this level of effort isn't welcomed by all — especially during their leisure hours.

    – Mary

  • August 20, 2009 at 9:40 am
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    I agree that people should focus more on what they are making available online and who may be able to see that information.

    Online providers do a poor job of disclosing what they may do with the information. Too many Terms of Service are written by lawyers, for lawyers, instead of for the user.

    As you point out, they ask too many mandatory questions up front. Personally, the more questions I have to answer, the more likely I am to not use the service. I like to add information gradually as I see how the information can help me.

    The point I was trying to make was that if you flood the internet with the information that you want to be public. It can overcome other, perhaps unwanted information.

  • August 20, 2009 at 11:44 pm
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    Doug –

    I like your proposal that each person flood the internet with the kind of personal information they want others to see. Clearly, we're all going to have to be very purposeful in the way we approach our online activities.

    – Mary

  • August 21, 2009 at 3:44 am
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    Doug –

    I like your proposal that each person flood the internet with the kind of personal information they want others to see. Clearly, we're all going to have to be very purposeful in the way we approach our online activities.

    – Mary

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