The Privacy Debate and What Government Actions Should Teach Us

The Pew Internet & American Life Project put out a study yesterday that contained little surprises. People love looking up information about themselves. (About 47% have looked up information about themselves, up from 22% five years ago). But most (60%) don’t feel the need to limit information about themselves online.

The question, of course, is whether we should care about privacy. For quite a long time, it seemed like privacy didn’t matter. But after a long silence, we’re starting to see some rumblings of a push back. In social networks, we learned recently that people do really care if information about what they’re buying and looking at is shown to their friends.

This is the first time since Sept. 11 that we’re seeing this. In the late 1990s, folks were far from sanguine. As the Internet started to become a bigger part of our lives, people began to learn about the new ways that information was being gathered about them. And they began to be worried. It was one of the first big reconsiderations of the notion of privacy since the 1970s.

Post Sept. 11 that concern about learning about privacy and enforcing control of information disappeared. And then, along came Gen Y, which showed just how willing a generation that grew up on the Internet was to let things all hang out.

But with the rise of this new round of innovations, Facebook and MySpace, we are beginning to see dustups again over privacy. One of the interesting things about the Pew study, as Danah Boyd points, is that younger generation is actually more careful about its privacy than growunps are.

Here’s what’s rather ironic about privacy pre-Sept. 11. The thing that the privacy folks used to warn about but which I think most people didn’t take as seriously was the notion that the government could be one of the biggest abusers of your right to privacy.

Then of course, we had wiretapping and the involvement of the phone companies in providing access to their trunk lines for domestic calls. And we learned about the FBI infiltrating group meetings that didn’t seem to have much to do with Al Qaeda, such as PETA and Greenpeace.

So, at the most basic, it seems to me that one of the places that folks might be concerned when it comes to privacy is social networks and what the government might do with information like that. Because on social networks, unlike other places, you put all of your affiliations, friends, and networks right out there.

Now, should we still be worried about marketers? I think that actually the backlash to Beacon and Facebook is an example of where folks are being smart about privacy. But I still think that they might consider abuses that might not take place right before their eyes.

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