< The Cost of Privacy


Friday, May 28, 2010

This week Facebook was obliged to tighten up its privacy policy. That followed a decision in April to unilaterally loosen its privacy policy, changes that outraged privacy advocates, spurred congressional inquiry and brought a lot of scrutiny by the media. And, as the media waited for the new privacy settings to be announced, they pretty much unanimously framed the issue as privacy good, Facebook sharing our data, bad.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: Will your settings now be set up in a way it automatically gives you maximum privacy -

MAN: Yes.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: - at the beginning?

MALE CORRESPONDENT: I think there are certainly a large number of Facebook users who basically have decided they really can't trust Facebook anymore.

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Congress and privacy activists have been blasting Facebook. Hopefully, that will push the ball along there, keep our information safe.

BOB GARFIELD: It wasn't just the pretty people on the TV machine, either. Time Magazine ran a cover headline about a scary redefinition of privacy, and editorials from The New York Times to The Seattle University Spectator squealed variously in fear and outrage. Look, even the most exhibitionist Facebook users have limits as to what they'd like to share with strangers. Most of us would prefer to control our own online exposure, and some of the scenarios are genuinely spooky. Consider YourOpenBook.org, a website put together by a developer named Will Moffat to make a point. The site allows you to search a term - let's say “herpes” - and see everybody on Facebook who mentioned the word but had never bothered to change the default privacy settings. Scrolling the results, complete with names and profile photos, is pretty horrifying.

WILL MOFFAT: And it was a half hour’s programming work, so you can be pretty sure that there are many other programmers with much worse intentions out there, busy as we speak.

BOB GARFIELD: Pornographers for example.

WILL MOFFAT: What they're trying to do is make their porn sites more interesting, less artificial, by including profiles from Facebook. I think it’s rather sinister that you can search Facebook for girls in San Francisco and then display their photographs on a porn site.

BOB GARFIELD: Ew! Moffat’s instinct, which he seems to share with virtually the entire journalistic universe, is to assure that users control their own privacy fates. Instinct, however, fails to reckon with certain critical realities. For starters, privacy has long since ceased being an absolute. Rather, it is a commodity which, for example, celebrities trade for celebrity, travelers trade for security, and we all trade for discounts at the supermarket checkout. In exchange for cents off on a can of soup, Safeway knows what ointments you use. But here’s the thing: Safeway doesn't really care about you-you. They care about the anonymous you, likewise, Facebook and Google and the other Internet institutions that use your data to help advertisers target audiences, a process that saves people from spam and which, in any event, is a whole lot less intrusive than it sounds because, says Emory University Professor Paul H. Rubin, it’s just computers talking to computers.

PAUL H. RUBIN: No human knows it, and no human cares about it. It’s – you know, we hear Google has your data, and we think, Google has it, somebody must have it. There’s no little man at Google who’s sitting there chuckling over your symptoms or your purchases.

BOB GARFIELD: Furthermore, if users and especially governments overreact, let's say, by mandating that sites share our data only with our explicit approval, the so-called opt-in method, then the problem will take care of itself because websites will quickly disappear. This was Randall Rothenberg, president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, speaking on this show last year, in response to the idea of everybody using an onscreen slider to meter their own privacy wishes, application by application, page by page.

RANDALL ROTHENBERG: People need to understand that all the seemingly free information they get, all the seemingly free email accounts, each of those comes because of advertising supporting those sites. If you’re asking people to move sliders back and forth, you're pretty dramatically changing the advertising support equation that’s kind of the backbone of the value proposition in American media.

BOB GARFIELD: Rothenberg’s argument is undeniable, but so is the fear factor, that creepy notion that we are, all of us, being shadowed around the internet, our most private thoughts and behavior sold to the highest bidder. Here was Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz on our show last month:

JON LEIBOWITZ: Imagine that you were walking through a shopping mall and there was someone who was walking behind you and taking notes on everywhere you went and sending it off to anyone who was interested for a small fee. That would be very disturbing, I think, to most people.

BOB GARFIELD: Which is why Facebook’s just announced new privacy dashboard, allowing users to set their own data sharing preferences, will be set by millions of frightened Facebookers to zero, at who knows what cost to Facebook’s revenue. And thus, the challenge, thus far not met, for media watchdogs to keep the issue alive so the society can make informed decisions about data privacy and the Internet but without inciting an angry mob to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.