Online Privacy Is Not An Oxymoron

It’s hard to put together a blog post on Facebook and privacy when Stowe Boyd has already said pretty much everything I wanted to say, and said it far better than I.

Still, after seeing several friends severely cut back their Facebook presence or outright leave Facebook altogether, I though I’d have my say.

Ever since the Internet has been around, the concept of sharing not with the world, but with a select subset of the world, has been a huge part of the fabric of the social web. It still is. Wanting to share information via a website with a chosen set of people is not the same thing as wanting to share that information with everyone on the Internet (plus major search engines as well). Telling someone “well, the world has changed, get over it” is a crappy, unhelpful, and disrespectful response.

It all gets down to control over your information. If you set up a website based around the idea that you can share information with only a select group of people (and yes I am looking at you, Facebook) then don’t be surprised if people get pissed off when you change your mind and decide that catering to advertisers is more important than user privacy.

It’s why Gowalla and Foursquare are popular — because users are in control of what they share. Twitter too, for that matter. In all three cases, what’s private or public in those services is simple to understand, and the rules don’t change.

Complexity — especially when it comes to privacy — breeds distrust. Simplicity is always better.

Which, perversely, is why “if you want it private don’t put it on the Internet” makes an appealing argument to some (especially Valley geeks). It’s simple, clean, binary — everything geeks like. And most of the people who make it also operate from a position of high privilege. What I mean by “privilege” is that they are well-educated and well-connected people who do not need to worry about where their next job or paycheck is going to come from, have stable homes and personal lives, and should their privacy be breached in a serious way, they have the ability and resources to get as much assistance as they need in repairing the damage.

The world isn’t binary though. And not everyone has as much privilege in their lives that they can afford to be cavalier about their privacy.

I don’t know whether Facebook will succeed in their desire to become the one true arbiter of the Social Web (and make billions while they’re at it) or not. Short-term, they probably will do very well for themselves. Over the long haul, though, I’m not so sure. Privacy still matters.

I am still on Facebook, although I’ve locked my settings down as much as Facebook will allow, removed some information about myself, and cut back on my friends list. What happens next will depend on Facebook. Keep screwing with my sense of control and I may well join the list of people who’ve bid Facebook farewell.