Monday, November 21, 2011

Danah Boyd on privacy in an online world

It's somewhat of a shock to realize that it's been more than a decade since Scott McNealy made his famous pronouncement on online privacy:
You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.

Well, people haven't actually just got over it. It's an important, complex, and intricate issue, and happily it is getting the sort of attention it needs.

So you should set aside a bit of time, and dig into some of the fascinating work that danah boyd has published recently, including:

  1. A detailed analysis of the impact of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act: “Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook About Age: Unintended Consequences of the ‘Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act’” in the online journal First Monday,
  2. and her remarks prepared for the Wall Street Journal: Debating Privacy in a Networked World for the WSJ

Both articles are extremely interesting, well-written, and deeply and carefully considered. Here's an excerpt from the WSJ discussion:

The strategies that people use to assert privacy in social media are diverse and complex, but the most notable approach involves limiting access to meaning while making content publicly accessible. I’m in awe of the countless teens I’ve met who use song lyrics, pronouns, and community references to encode meaning into publicly accessible content. If you don’t know who the Lions are or don’t know what happened Friday night or don’t know why a reference to Rihanna’s latest hit might be funny, you can’t interpret the meaning of the message. This is privacy in action.

And here's an excerpt from the First Monday article:

Furthermore, many parents reported that they helped their children create their accounts. Among the 84 percent of parents who were aware when their child first created the account, 64 percent helped create the account. Among those who knew that their child joined below the age of 13 — even if the child is now older than 13 — over two–thirds (68 percent) indicated that they helped their child create the account. Of those with children who are currently under 13 and on Facebook, an even greater percentage of parents were aware at the time of account creation. In other words, the vast majority of parents whose children signed up underage were involved in the process and would have been notified that the minimum age was 13 during the account creation process.

As Joshua Gans notes in a great essay on Digitopoly, this is not an easy situation for a parent to be in, and the stakes are actually quite high:

And there are actually many reasons why I would want to allow her to do that. First and foremost, this is the opportunity for me to monitor her interactions on Facebook — requiring she be a friend at least for a few years. That allows me some access and the ability to educate. Second, all of her friends were on Facebook. This is where tween interactions occur. Finally, I actually think that it is the evolving means of communication between people. To cut off a child from that seems like cutting them off from the future.
I can entirely sympathise; my wife and I had similar deep discussions about these questions with our children (although at the time it was MySpace and AOL, not Facebook ).

They are your kids; you know them best. In so many ways, Facebook is just another part of life that you can help them with, like all those other temptations of life (drugs, sex, etc.). Talk to them, tell them honestly and openly what the issues are, and why it matters. Keep an eye on what they are doing, and let them know you'll always be there for them.

There are no simple answers, but it's great that people like boyd and Gans are pressing the debate, raising awareness, and making us all think about what we want our modern online world to be like. Here's boyd again:

We must also switch the conversation from being about one of data collection to being one about data usage. This involves drawing on the language of abuse, violence, and victimization to think about what happens when people’s willingness to share is twisted to do them harm. Just as we have models for differentiating sex between consenting partners and rape, so too must we construct models that that separate usage that’s empowering and that which strips people of their freedoms and opportunities.
This isn't going to be easy, but it's hard to think about anything that is more important that the way in which people talk with each other.

So don't just "get over it". Think about it, research it, talk about it, and help ensure that the future turns out the way it should.

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