Is Online Privacy a Myth?

Lora Bentley

Facebook threw privacy advocates into a flurry of activity last month when it drastically changed the privacy practices and policies implemented on the social networking juggernaut. Some issued responses on their own Web sites or in newsletters. Several even went to the extent of filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, arguing that the new practices, which make user information public by default unless the user specifically indicates otherwise, came awfully close to violating privacy rights. In response, Facebook said only that it had consulted regulators and privacy advocates before making the changes.


Monday, ChannelWeb reported CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke to TechCrunch's Michael Arrington about the thinking behind the changes. Something tells me what he said won't do much to assuage the fears of privacy advocates. Essentially, Zuckerberg said the changes reflect an evolving social norm. "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people," he said. The ChannelWeb headline summed it up nicely: Face It, No One Wants Online Privacy Anymore.


I don't think it's wise to say no one wants privacy and expect to be taken seriously. It's dangerous to use broad qualifiers like "no one" or "everybody" in an argument, because there will always be an exception to the rule. And the exceptions to this rule are those who post to Facebook (or any other social platform) without even thinking about who can access their information. It's not that they don't want privacy; more often than not, they don't realize they don't have it.


And like ReadWriteWeb writer Marshall Kirkpatrick noted, it may be that the changes reflect not what users want, but what Facebook wants. So the company "just went for it," he said. I'm inclined to agree.


And whether or not Facebook users want online privacy is somewhat irrelevant, in my opinion. The fact is, any time they post something on a Web site, whether it is a public or a private site, the risk increases that someone other than those the users want to have the information will gain access to it. It's like hiding your diary under your mattress and telling yourself your little sister will never find it. And if she does, she'll never get the lock open. Right?


If someone wants in, he or she will find a way, just like your little sister did. The safest way to keep something completely private is to keep it to yourself. Don't write it down -- in a diary or on a Web site -- and don't tell anyone. Period.

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