Strong opinions, weakly held

Pushing the boundaries of privacy

Tim O’Reilly argues that the nature of privacy is changing, and that it would be worse for companies not to experiment in that realm than it is for companies like Facebook to push those boundaries and occasionally run into trouble:

The world is changing. We give up more and more of our privacy online in exchange for undoubted benefits. We give up our location in order to get turn by turn directions on our phone; we give up our payment history in return for discounts or reward points; we give up our images to security cameras equipped with increasingly sophisticated machine learning technology. As medical records go online, we’ll increase both the potential and the risks of having private information used and misused.

We need to engage deeply with these changes, and we best do that in the open, with some high profile mis-steps to guide us. In an odd way, Facebook is doing us a favor by bringing these issues to the fore, especially if (as they have done in the past), they react by learning from their mistakes. It’s important to remember that there was a privacy brouhaha when Facebook first introduced the Newsfeed back in 2006!

It’s a well-considered post, but I think he lets Facebook off a little too easily. To me, Facebook has committed one cardinal sin: expanding access to information that has already been posted without getting permission from users. If I post a photo to Facebook and only my friends can see it, those are the only people who should ever be able to see it, unless I give Facebook permission to show it to more people. Any other course of action is hostile to users, and Facebook and other sites deserve to be pilloried for making those kinds of mistakes.


  1. I’ve tried to write a privacy statement for a content sharing web site. This was an add-on website for an iPhone app. When I showed it to the app developer, he said “ack! I can’t countenance that!” I then walked them through the steps of why each line was in there, the scenarios which I foresaw doing things with it, and at each point he said “oh, yeah, that makes perfect sense”.

    I think the problem people have with Facebook is that Facebook didn’t think through those scenarios, and so initially said “feel free to write your diary here”. Now they’ve gone through about three revs of “hey, I’m gonna publish your diary to everybody unless you tell me otherwise”. Yeah, there’s no way that people would have shared all those things if they’d had a real and viable privacy policy up-front, but there’s also no way for Facebook to make money unless Facebook opens up your privacy.

    So, yeah, they’re schmucks for changing the rules mid-game. Whether they’re calculating schmucks, they knew this was going to happen and figured they’d stick a foot in the door and pry it open, or just shortsighted schmucks, remains to be seen.

  2. I still think they would have been fine had they said, “Everything you post from today on is public” rather than “Everything you ever posted is public.” They could have done that with little suffering.

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