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.

On Google Latitude and Why I'm Not Going There

Despite my relative blogging paucity of late, I’m hardly shy about putting personal information online. Between Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and the various other odds and ends of my online life, I’ve shared quite a lot over the years. And given my relatively unique name, it’s quite easy to enter a few search strings and pull up an awful lot of detail about me. But Google Latitude is a bridge too far, even for me.

Here’s a quick rundown on Latitude, if it hasn’t gotten onto your radar screen yet:

This Wednesday, Google launched its much-anticipated location-tracking service, Latitude, which uses the GPS hardware found in smart phones (such as Google Android phones and BlackBerry and Windows Mobile handsets) to pinpoint your position on a map and share that information with your friends.

I’ve always been very clear about the line between personal and private information, and Latitude falls smack into the camp of private, as far as I’m concerned. It’s too much sharing. I’ll happily tell the world what I just ordered at Starbucks, but that doesn’t mean I want to world along for the ride as I walk down the street carrying my coffee.

Perhaps it’s a gender thing, but I find the concept that someone can know exactly where I am at all times to be more than a little scary. My work address is easy to find, but being able to see exactly when or what direction I’m walking in when I leave at night? Sorry, but that’s just not something I want the world to get access to.

And yes, I know that by default Latitude wouldn’t share anything unless I actively made the choice to share it, and yes, I know that simply by having a GPS-enabled phone, the phone company already can track me if they want to. If some government agency forces AT&T to give up my personal data, there’s not a whole hell of a lot I can do about it. But if a person I’ve shared my location with gets their phone stolen, their account hacked, or even decides to sell access to their account, that’s a different story.

I know not everyone feels this way, and they’re perfectly happy checking in on Brightkite or adding everyone in their address book to Latitude. I wish them well. But that’s a party I’m just not joining.

New Online Code: Don’t Be Annoying

I can understand abuse, harass, threaten, and so forth, but annoy? If it’s really illegal to annoy people on the Internet now, the avalanche of lawsuits is going to be frightening. I can’t wait for the test cases on this one:

A new federal law states that when you annoy someone on the Internet, you must disclose your identity. Here’s the relevant language.

“Whoever…utilizes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet… without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person…who receives the communications…shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”

At least it’s criminal law, not civil. Individuals can’t go around suing everyone who leaves a snarky comment on their weblog, they’ll have to convince a DA to file charges. However, as points out, “trusting prosecutorial discretion is hardly reassuring”. Especially these days.