Did we pronounce privacy dead this week?

Academics Jeff Jarvis and Danah Boyd, on stage at Supernova, can't pinpoint a solution to online privacy controversies, but agree misguided attempts to define privacy are part of the problem.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read

PHILADELPHIA--Does privacy exist anymore? Do we even know what it is? A conversation between digital academics Jeff Jarvis and Danah Boyd on Friday morning at the Supernova conference capped off a week in which many peoples' perceptions of the tension between public and private data online were shaken (and stirred).

"We have no definition of privacy," said Boyd, a charismatic Microsoft researcher who says she has spent the past two months working on a data-intensive analysis of news stories pertaining to Facebook's ongoing privacy controversy. The massive social network has been criticized by bloggers, advocates, and lawmakers for an allegedly cavalier attitude toward the privacy of its user base--but its astonishing growth has continued, and the social network propelled past 500 million members last week. "We don't know what we're talking about, the (members of the) press certainly don't know what they're talking about, (and) the spokespeople don't know what they're talking about."

Boyd, along with co-author Eszter Hargittai, published a research paper called "Facebook Privacy Settings: Who Cares?" in most recent issue of the online academic journal First Monday.

Jarvis, a blogger and media-industry pundit currently working on a book called "Public Parts," concurred that the frenzied discussion about privacy runs the risk of alarmism and missing the point. "I think we talk so much about privacy, privacy, privacy that we risk getting to the benefits of publicness that the Internet makes possible," he said.

Boyd had pinpointed the reasons that we tend to uphold privacy, citing motivations like security, the protection of personally identifiable information, and avoidance of embarrassment. She said that she, like Jarvis, believes in the idea of transparency, the power of information-sharing, and is "a strong proponent of the public, and peoples' right to access the public." But what creates tension, she said, is the idea of privilege--something that readers of her research are well familiar with, considering her most heavily publicized theory has been about the "class divide" between the original user bases of MySpace and Facebook and how the rise of Facebook was a sort of "white flight."

Consider it a sort of informational privilege: some suffer more of a risk from their information being made public on the Web, voluntarily or involuntarily, than others do, and are left more vulnerable to the kind of misinterpretation that Jarvis had mentioned before. Boyd brought up the fact that all arrest records in Connecticut are made public.

"The rhetorics of harm and damage of this...are very important and I don't want to dismiss them," Boyd said of the general connections between privacy and privilege. "What happens when these decisions continue to magnify inequality?"

That's an interesting argument to throw into the mix considering what's been happening this week on the fronts of privacy and social sharing. Facebook released Facebook Questions, its first-ever completely public feature. A few years ago, that would've been unimaginable, considering just looking at a Facebook profile required not only an e-mail log-in, but an e-mail log-in from the same university. A security consultant, meanwhile, trawled Facebook's directory for publicly accessible information and wrapped it all up into a downloadable file that he posted to The Pirate Bay--taking voluntarily released user data and putting it into a much scarier package. Was he wrong? Was it just to make a statement? Those rhetorical questions go back to Boyd's first point of the Supernova talk: that maybe we don't really know what we're talking about when we talk about privacy.

The previous day at Supernova, White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Beth Noveck had taken the stage and explained some of the Obama administration's tech-focused initiatives designed to make more information openly available for public benefit. That's the sort of thing that Jarvis' position would seem to wholeheartedly support ("When we make the discussion solely about privacy and about fear we lose the potential of looking at the benefits of sharing, the benefits of connection, the benefits of transparency," he said Friday) and Boyd's would eye with a socially conscious brand of skepticism.

There's all the information that the government has about people, and that's where we get the spotlight issue. For a lot of the people who have these long records, they're not in positions of privilege to be able to keep them down," Boyd said. "Search changes the picture, and the material put up online becoming searchable is constantly accessed out of context." Boyd also warned the audience about the dangers of thinking of the Internet as a great democratizer. We may all have the power to share, but the stratigraphy of the real world is still in place.

The acclaimed trailer for David Fincher's upcoming film "The Social Network," about the ascent of Facebook, highlights the profound and intimate moments that its members share along with the astonishing amount of power bestowed in turn upon Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It was Facebook's handling of this massive amount of data that threw some people completely off guard--how could a company that's built itself atop a community of hundreds of millions of people eager to share this sort of personal detail with one another then make the decision to render a big chunk of it public by default?

"(Facebook) created its structure to create a public, a kind of closed public, a private public," Jarvis said in regard to Facebook's original closed-doors approach. "I think Zuckerberg is very earnest in his belief that a public society is a better society, and of course he has business interests in making things public. (But) I thought I was talking to a public and suddenly I'm talking to the public."

Boyd had said that Facebook's willingness to change its privacy policy didn't necessarily alarm people because of the information that was now public or semi-public, but because it highlighted a lack of control on their part. "People scream 'privacy fail!' when they feel as though they've lost control, when they feel as though the system has told them some way in which the information will flow, and they find that it flows differently," she said.

Who decides where to draw the line?

"That's where things get extremely messy," Boyd said.

"These are Gutenberg-like changes here," Jarvis said, "so we don't know where it's headed."