Our World (and the Internet’s) Unsettled Privacy Foundation

As we are seeing in the context of the Facebook IPO and Google’s privacy change, the FTC, European Union, and other jurisdictions are about to put privacy front and center.

The answers to those questions — ultimately societal and cultural questions — will determine the size of the Internet market, and whether Google and Facebook are truly companies worth 100s of billions or rather 10s of billions.  Society — and different jurisdictions may have different sensibilities — has to roughly balance two values.

One, we love and expect to get things on the Internet for free.  Pre-Internet, what was “free” — broadcast television and radio?  Now, much of the customer internet — tools of tremendous power, email, video, Twitter, social, and on and on — are free, and those are our expectations.  These are funded — think Google and Facebook — by tremendous advertising models.  Their ability to do so has democratized the power of information for people regardless of income or class.

Second, our notions of privacy, if we think of them, are being thoroughly tested. Our emails with our most sensitive thoughts are mined to deliver ads, but how many of us would allow our physical mail to be opened or our telephone calls to be monitored in the name of delivering ads.  Our search histories, Facebook profiles browsed, pictures opened are digital fossils of our thoughts, fears, desires, worries, etc.  In the past, most of these would have stayed private, otherwise risking profound embarrassment, but whether private or public would largely be in our control.  Now others control whether the windows to our histories are open or closed.  Perhaps, the targeting of ads can be made consistent with society’s evolving expectations of privacy, but what is to stop this data being used when considering insurance or hiring, being pulled out decades later when someone is running for office, or in satisfying someone’s general curiosity.  Even if the original collector of the information is held in check, what happens if a rogue employee or thief gets their hands on the information.

These are profound questions, both in terms of the way individuals and societies decide to maintain themselves, and in the size and nature of existing and future internet business models.  We will be spending enormous energies for decades balancing the competing and compelling values at stake, and it’s time for everyone to join in this conversation.

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