Why no one cares about privacy anymore

A backlash to the Google Buzz backlash indicates that people have grown comfortable relinquishing their privacy. Call it Generation X-hibitionist, developing on Web sites like Loopt, FriendFeed, Flickr, and Blippy.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
9 min read
Google co-founder Sergey Brin, a supporter of Google Buzz (file photo) CNET/Josh Lowensohn

Google co-founder Sergey Brin adores the company's social network called Google Buzz. We know this because an engineer working five feet from Brin used Google Buzz to say so.

"I just finished eating dinner with Sergey and four other Buzz engineers in one of Google's cafes," engineer John Costigan wrote a day after the Twitter-and-Facebook-esque service was announced. "He was particularly impressed with the smooth launch and the great media response it generated."

You might call Brin's enthusiasm premature, especially since privacy criticisms prompted Google to make a series of quick changes a few days later. Activists have asked the Federal Trade Commission to "compel" Google to reprogram Buzz a third time to adhere to the no doubt well-informed specifications of Beltway lawyers. A class action lawsuit filed on behalf of an aggrieved second-year law student is underway.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the courthouse: relatively few Google Buzz users seem to mind. Within four days of its launch, millions of people proved Brin right by using the messaging service to publish 9 million posts. A backlash to the backlash developed, with more thoughtful commentators pointing out that Google Buzz disclosed your "followers" and who you were "following" only if you had elected to publish that information publicly on your Google profile in the first place.

My hunch is that Google Buzz will continue to grow because, after nearly a decade of social-networking experiences (its great-granddaddy, Friendster, started in early 2002), Internet users have grown accustomed to informational exhibitionism. The default setting for a Buzz message is public, and Buzz-ers using mobile phones are prompted to disclose their locations.

Norms are changing, with confidentiality giving way to openness. Participating in YouTube, Loopt, FriendFeed, Flickr, and other elements of modern digital society means giving up some privacy, yet millions of people are willing to make that trade-off every day. Of people with an online profile, nearly 40 percent have disabled privacy settings so anyone may view it, according to a Pew Internet survey released a year ago. The percentage is probably higher today.

No doubt critics of Google Buzz would reply that accidental disclosure of some correspondents was ample reason to worry. While it's true that privacy options at first were not as obvious as they could have been, they did exist. Even the original version let you edit the "auto-following" list and preview your profile to see how you'd appear to others. (If you're that sensitive about your privacy, especially on a free service, why not take a moment to click that link?)

Different people, different privacy preferences
Much of our modern concept of privacy can be traced to a 1890 law review article by Samuel Warren and future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. They complained that "the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons" and sympathized with those who were "victims of journalistic enterprise."

If this sounds like Barbra Streisand's famously futile privacy lawsuit against a photographer who dared to take an aerial snapshot of her Malibu beach home, it is. What outraged Warren was a rather tame society article in a Boston newspaper about a lavish breakfast party that he had organized for his daughter's wedding. (Like the censor-happy Streisand, Brandeis and Warren paid scant attention to the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press.)

Fortunately, courts have not embraced all of Warren and Brandeis' arguments, and American citizens are not as muzzled today as those two would have wished. A lawsuit that a Pennsylvania couple filed against Google Street View, for the clearly felonious act of publishing a photograph of their house that mirrored what was on the county tax assessor's Web site, recently met with an ignominious end.

"As a social good, I think privacy is greatly overrated because privacy basically means concealment. People conceal things in order to fool other people about them. They want to appear healthier than they are, smarter, more honest and so forth."
--Richard Posner, federal judge

"As a social good," says Richard Posner, the federal judge and iconoclastic conservative, "I think privacy is greatly overrated because privacy basically means concealment. People conceal things in order to fool other people about them. They want to appear healthier than they are, smarter, more honest and so forth." That isn't a defense of snooping as much as a warning of the flip side of privacy--concealing facts that are discreditable, including those that other people have a legitimate reason for knowing.

The truth about privacy is counter-intuitive: less of it can lead to a more virtuous society. Markets function more efficiently when it's cheap to identify and deliver the right product to the right person at the right time. Behavioral targeting allows you to see relevant, interesting Web ads instead of irrelevant, annoying ones. The ability to identify customers unlikely to pay their bills lets stores offer better deals to those people who will.

Anyone who's spent a moment reading comments on blogs or news articles knows that encouraging participants to keep their identities private generates vitriol or worse. Thoughtful discussions tend to arise when identities are public. Without that, as Adam Smith wrote about an anonymous man in a large city in The Wealth of Nations, he is likely to "abandon himself to every low profligacy and vice."

Privacy relinquishment is the business model behind exhibitionistic start-ups like Blippy.com, which lets users broadcast what they buy from Amazon, iTunes, and other sites. Other users are invited to submit critiques. After a Blippy user named Joe Greenstein purchased an iPhone app titled "SpeedDate--Dating for Singles of any Sex," it didn't take long for the discussion to turn risque. One fellow wondered: "Are you really 'dating singles of any sex?'" Another asked: "What gives, Joe. Did you break up with your gal?" The original poster replied: "Yes, to breakup. Yes, to dating singles of any sex."

Location-disclosing services are proliferating. Twitter now permits users to include geolocation data in messages, and the company has told developers to "encourage" users to enable the feature. Start-ups like Brightkite and Loopt let you select who can monitor your GPS-derived location, moment-by-moment, through your cell phone. Google Latitude is similar; Foursquare and Dopplr let you disclose your whereabouts more selectively. A report this week said that Facebook may do the same.

Medical privacy is, in some cases, being selectively discarded. Cancer patients share intimate details on survivor discussion sites. On theKnot.com, theNest.com, and theBump.com, members often tell other community members they're pregnant before they tell their families, and often don't bother to conceal their identities. These discussion areas go beyond support networks; they've become additions to and substitutes for in-person conversations.

Commercial data-mining is reaching its apogee at companies like Amazon.com, Last.fm, Apple, and Netflix that use it to do nothing more sinister than suggest relevant books or movies. Customers applauded when Netflix offered $1 million to anyone who could improve its recommendation engine; a team including three AT&T researchers claimed the prize last September. Netflix's next contest will require entrants to crunch millions of chunks of demographic data, including age, sex, ZIP code, and previously rented movies, and then predict which movies those people will like.

Generation X-hibitionist
If any of this concerns you, then you didn't grow up with the Internet. It's difficult to overstate how thoroughly today's youth--call them Generation X-hibitionist--have adjusted to living in a world of porn spam and Viagra ads that utterly lacks quaint 20th-century conceptions of privacy. (When dealing with the police, privacy is a Fourth Amendment right; when dealing with Blippy, it's a mere preference.)

A 2008 Harris Interactive/CTIA survey of more than 2,000 American teens confirms that youth are least worried about privacy. Only 41 percent were concerned; 59 percent were happy to provide personal information to marketers. Compare this to a Harris poll conducted in 1998, the same year Google was founded, that found a remarkable 80 percent of people were hesitant to shop online because of privacy worries. Fast forward 12 years and we're bragging on Blippy about what we bought with our Mastercard.

"People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people--and that social norm is just something that has evolved over time."
--Mark Zuckerberg, CEO, Facebook

Perhaps this disinterest in traditional concepts of privacy is one reason why Twitter (originally public) is growing so much faster than Facebook (originally private). While Facebook's remarkable share of global Internet eyeballs doubled last year, according to Alexa.com, Twitter's grew tenfold.

Because Facebook has such a large audience, it can no longer grow as fast. But one advantage that Twitter has is that its founders intentionally chose openness and offered simpler choices. With mere followers instead of friends, there's no need to worry about whether someone qualifies as an intimate or not.

Much of this change is generational. But it also happens when folks old enough to remember cassette tapes and President George H.W. Bush become more comfortable with disclosure. It was only three years ago that Time magazine wondered if Google Street View was "an invasion of privacy." Now even municipal IT departments, including those of Atlanta and Lynchburg, Va., have found uses for it. Does anyone remember when the Electronic Privacy Information Center claimed in 2004 that Google's Gmail somehow violated wiretap laws? Hundreds of millions of satisfied users later, we know that nobody else cared.

At a technology conference in January, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told his audience that Internet users don't care as much about privacy anymore. The 25-year old said that, in the seven years since he started the company, "people have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people--and that social norm is just something that has evolved over time." Zuckerberg defended the company's decision in December to push users to reveal more, saying "we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it."

That change drew the same wails of protest that greeted Google Buzz. Advocacy groups wrote an alarmist note to federal regulators demanding an injunction on grounds that the changes "harm the public interest"--effectively substituting a small clique's privacy preferences for everyone else's. The ACLU announced a letter-writing campaign. The Federal Trade Commission noted, ominously, that Facebook's changes are "of particular interest to us." About the only thing missing--no doubt a press release is being drafted this very moment--is a class action lawsuit to enrich plaintiffs' attorneys while resulting in no measurable changes to Facebook.com.

But as regulatory enthusiasts in Washington were attempting ritualistic divinations of the public interest, something different was happening on the Web: the actual public didn't care. Instead of abandoning the site en masse, Facebook users clicked through a few menus of options and went on with their lives. A protest group titled "Facebook! Fix the Privacy Settings" drew a mere 3,400 of more than 350 million users, less than one-thousandth of 1 percent. Compare that unconcern with the number of people who turned their attention to such weighty topics as "Chuck Norris Facts" (more than 225,000), "Physics Doesn't Exist, It's All Gnomes" (more than 76,000), and "I Flip My Pillow Over To Get To The Cold Side" group (nearly 1 million).

One reason why Zuckerberg's who-needs-privacy argument works is that, through a growing collection of these services with unusual vowel counts, we're choosing what to share. Unlike interactions with government snoops, these are voluntary: Give up a bit of privacy to get a service for free, and everyone benefits (except perhaps rivals that used to charge).

Zuckerberg's own approach to privacy mirrors his company's. His public Facebook profile shows him snuggling up to a teddy bear and attempting to walk while tied to what appears to be a co-worker dressed as a banana. Another photographic montage captures Zuckerberg at his sister's wedding in Jamaica, smiling bravely while wearing a fluorescent vest matching the bridesmaids' turquoise gowns.

There are photos of Zuck The Party Animal at a 2006 kegger, and others with his girlfriend Priscilla at an honest-to-goodness Silicon Valley bison roast. The most telling informational tidbit may be that the Keds-sporting entrepreneur is, officially and publicly, a "fan" of himself.

Perhaps the real issue is not technology but psychology. Irwin Altman, a professor emeritus in the University of Utah's psychology department, created one of the more widely cited theories of privacy before Facebook's founder was born. "If one can choose how much or how little to divulge about oneself to another voluntarily, privacy is maintained," Altman wrote, effectively blessing the social media of a generation later. "If another person can influence how much information we divulge about ourselves or how much information input we let in about others, a lower level of privacy exists."

Now those boundaries are so fluid. Fifty years ago Mark Zuckerberg would have been seen as disclosing far too much information. Doesn't that guy need help, or at least therapy? Now it makes him a very normal, by the standards of his generation, Internet billionaire.

Disclosure: The author is married to a Google employee who was not involved with Google Buzz.