Ethics @ Work: Loss of privacy affects everyone

Regulation doesn’t have to mean legislation; it could be self-legislation.

May 28, 2010 14:02
4 minute read.
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facebook 311. (photo credit: AP)


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On Wednesday, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg held a press conference to announce that the popular social-networking site would be more helpful in letting users decide their own privacy settings. The conference was a response to a growing wave of user resentment over the continuing efforts of the site to nudge more and more user information into the public sphere. Facebook’s policy was discussed earlier in the week in a New York Times symposium, some of which is distilled in this column.

This is how Internet lawyer Marcia Hoffman defined the problem: “Facebook changes its service in ways that infuriate users and create an uproar over privacy. It apologizes and rolls back some of the changes, and users simmer down. Then the same thing happens a few months later.”

But as media expert Clay Shirky wrote, most of the worries being expressed are “concerns that are really about the Internet, considered as a whole, but which currently settle on Facebook as the dominant social-networking service.”

Is this an issue that demands regulation or at the very least self-regulation? Or can we rely on market incentives and that dissatisfied Facebook customers can vote with their feet by just abandoning the service?

According to Jim Harper of the libertarian Cato Institute: “If consumers have privacy worries, they can simply decline to use social networks like Facebook... This gives it the incentives it needs to tune its privacy settings consistent with public demand.”

Harper must feel vindicated by Zuckerberg’s announcement coming only hours after his comments. But was Facebook’s about-face the result of lost business, or was it due to threats of government regulation from some prominent legislators?

The case for regulation is strongest when the classical ideal of free competition and perfect information is violated. I perceive two deviations that may apply to Facebook:

• Becoming well-informed is difficult or costly: This applies to Facebook and Internet privacy in general. It is difficult partly because it is inherently complex and mostly because Facebook is trying to make it difficult for you to understand. It is costly because losing your privacy tends to be a one-way street; it is a lot easier to keep information from being disclosed than it is to “undisclose” it.

According to Prof. Edward Felten: “Facebook’s privacy policy is nearly 6,000 words of legalese in tiny print. Few users have read it, but all are said to have consented.”

• There is a public interest beyond the interests of market participants: I believe there is a social interest in individual privacy. To be blunt: your privacy is my business. Privacy is a necessary element of good character, and having citizens with good character is a public interest.

Shirky wrote that there is a business exigency behind the erosion of privacy: “The more sharing, the better calculated in page views, and in data collected on users’ behavior.”

Unfortunately, it is worse than business; it is ideology. Twenty-six-year-old Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t have only a business model; he has a social model. In an interview he said: “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or coworkers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly... Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

The New York Times even reports that revenue considerations were not paramount in the erosion of privacy settings.

Prominent business-ethics blogger Chris MacDonald pointed out exactly what is wrong with this ideology: “What it means to be intimate with someone... is to give them access that you don’t give to everyone. It’s what makes them special. For someone like Zuckerberg not to understand this is truly scary, given how much information he controls.”

One of the very first articles I wrote about Internet privacy, about eight years ago, dealt with the question of fake online identities. An educator had noticed the phenomenon of young people using imaginary identities online and wondered if this could impede their own identity development. My response was that when it comes to personal development it can be healthy, within limits, to be able to shelter your identity. I think this is similar to MacDonald’s point.

Regulation doesn’t have to mean legislation; it could be self-legislation such as the “Social Networking Bill of Rights” advocated by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But the situation where the sites are proactive and the users reactive needs to be reversed. Each person must take responsibility for, and control of, his or her own identity, and information-sharing utilities must empower and facilitate this process.

Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).

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