A tough nut to crack

I continue coming across various analyses of Facebook’s recent privacy decision, and generally haven’t felt inspired enough to weigh in. danah boyd changed all that with a rather impassioned analysis of why the decision reeks of social oppression.

I fall in the camp of people who generally were irritated by Facebook’s new privacy settings. I had long ago lost enough trust in Facebook that I diligently went through every single privacy setting following the change just to make sure they hadn’t changed one on my behalf without asking – something that has happened to me in the past. I hardly agree with Zuckerberg’s assessment that the age of privacy is over, I tend to think it’s only just begun. But I also think the social oppression line danah paints on top of all this is a dramatic over-simplification of an insanely complex issue.

There doesn’t seem to be much to be said about publicity being a privilege. I can think of a number of public figures who wound up that way by matter of accident or side effect: CEOs who just love business, and as a result have to accept of a degree of publicity, or at the other end of the spectrum individuals who made arguably poor choices and were thrust into a public light that they hadn’t set out to find. The reality is that a chosen few get to be public, but those chosen few didn’t and wouldn’t necessarily choose to be public.

There is an element of truth in some of the arguments danah lays out, which is that the privileged often have enough knowledge to think through the ways in which their information might be manipulated and therefore pay close attention to options provided to them. In other words, as a result of privilege – educational, socioeconomic, etc. – some folks may be able to more easily transcend defaults than others. And it’s true that not everyone is equally trained to observe these settings.

My mom has recently discovered the Internet (yes, it took me a decade to persuade her), and with it the suffering that comes with unnoticed defaults. I recently got the following email from her:

“Orbitz just charges for travel insurance with international flights (says so in terms and conditions crap that no one ever reads) unless you UNCLICK a box.  CheapTickets charged me on domestic ticket monthly fee for rewards program because I didn’t UNCLICK a box.  This is like ordering fries at MacDonald’s and getting charged for the entire menu because you didn’t UN-ORDER shakes and burgers and such.”

As mom’s experience shows, translating the offline to the online world isn’t always obvious for newcomers. So, is there an element of privilege involved? Possibly, maybe technically sophisticated users are more likely to be in the 20% of Facebook users that change their privacy settings, certainly I think it’s safe to assume Mark Zuckerberg and friends are in that category. But is this as simple as danah suggests, that Silicon Valley elite have no sense of the value of privacy because they have lived such public and therefore privileged lives, and are socially oppressing the rest of the world? I for one don’t think so, I would be surprised if it were such a calculated move. I think the reality here is that designing for a quality as subjective as privacy is a really tough nut to crack, and something we’ll be working on for years to come.

I give Facebook a lot of credit for the decision to prompt users when the change to defaults was made. danah claims it was done “in a way that no one would ever figure out what’s going on,” but I haven’t seen any empirical evidence to support that claim. I’m sure it could have been done better, and probably will be in the future, but it was an early step towards a world in which users are prompted to investigate defaults and settings rather than given hard-to-find options to do so if they desire. Privacy is as danah says about control, and I think Facebook deserves credit for proactively nudging their users to take a look through their privacy settings. If users went through those options and didn’t change them, well, one of two things: either people are happy being public, or danah is right and no one can figure out what’s going on. I have yet to see data supporting either claim, though. Nor have I seen data to support the claim that it is in Facebook’s economic interest to make everyone be more public — though I’d love to see a convincing dispute or affirmation of that claim!

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