"The internet has changed the infrastructure of relationships… Each time you don’t share, a relationship loses its wings."
It’s undeniable that the rise of the Internet has completely changed not only the way we operate and do business, but the way we operate as a society. It’s impacted how we find information, how we share information, how much information we share, how we communicate with one another, when we communicate with one another, who we communicate with, how we express ourselves and more.
And while all that sharing and communicating has certainly allowed us to open up our worlds, many privacy advocates are quick to point out that it’s also opened us up to risks, from benign online abuse by anonymous sources to complete identity theft that can expose our health and financial information.
With a thorough look at historical parallels in the world of privacy, detailed examples of practical applications of information sharing, and analysis of landmark shifts in cultural perceptions of what’s “private” vs. “public,” in Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live Jeff Jarvis offers both a primer on privacy as a societal construction and a framework for operating in a world where the web, and your presence on it, is nearly unavoidable.
All Good Things Take Time
"We all live on the parabola: We discover something new. We get carried away with it, frightening pundits, who declare that life will never be the same. Then we find our balance."
We’re all at different places in our relationship with privacy, particularly given the elusive, subjective, and ever changing definition of the concept.
But any visions of anti-Internet society rising up to insist on widespread protection, universal restriction and obligatory regulation don’t align with the reality. As with the introduction of any new technology, the glut of media coverage and with quotes from very vocal “privacy advocates” — still just mid-way through their parabolic journey through privacy — may be skewing our perception of public opinion.
In fact, as Jarvis explains, just 33% of Internet users report being concerned about how much information about them is available online, a number that has dropped by 7% in four years. Public Parts was published in 2011, so it’s possible that number has dropped another 7% or more since.
As with other technologies that raised questions about privacy and access to information as their inception — the printing press, cameras and ATMs, to name a few — exposure and time have enabled many of us to find balance in our relationship with them, seeing the value that these products and services provide in exchange for our information. The “cookies” we were blocking just a few years ago, for example, are now considered vital, given the number of passwords we’d otherwise have to remember and re-enter daily.
There’s reason to be protective of your privacy, to be sure. But informed analysis and understanding of how your information is shared and used will serve you better than complete avoidance of the web, in the long run.
The Ethic of Knowing
"Regulating the use rather than the gathering of information is a wise strategy. If we keep chasing around trying to stop information from being revealed or gathered, we’ll find ourselves in a perpetual game of whack-a-mole."
As Jarvis puts it, “Privacy is the ethic of knowing.” For individuals, companies and government agencies, just the regular day-to-day fulfillment of our duty and purpose necessitates not only learning facts about people, but keeping records of things, and analyzing that data. We don’t mind that our doctor keeps track of our medical history, or that our bank sends us statements showing what purchases we’ve made, or that our web browser saves our passwords. It’s when that information is misused that we feel our privacy has been violated.
Jarvis offers some helpful tips for the care and keeping of personal information to ensure that you don’t violate someone’s privacy when they entrust you with their personal information. Some of the most widely applicable:
- Be transparent about what you will do with information: If it’s given to you for one reason, don’t assume you have permission for other types of usage or sharing.
- Protect information: If someone trusts you to hold their information, ensure that you’re protecting it from prying eyes.
- Don’t use information against people (unless they deserve it).
- Add value: If you’re collecting data, use it for good, not evil.
Rules of Engagement
"The internet is life, only bigger and faster. The lessons you learned as a child and those you teach your children about how to treat others all still apply. The net is still just a place filled with people."
It’s easy to think of the web as an entirely different world, with its own culture and its own set of rules. And in many ways, it is. But at the end of the day, regardless of the web site you’re on, the information you’re seeking or sharing, and the avatars you’re interacting with, the Internet really is a means of interacting with other people. If we all agree to treat one another, and our information, with the same respect we would offline, we can take advantage of the power of the web, rather than letting it paralyze us. Here are some good rules to keep in mind:
- The Tattoo Rule: The Internet doesn’t forget. The things that you share now will be around later. Share wisely.
- The Cabernet Rule: Just as an excess of alcohol could spoil a professional event, so too can it wreck your online reputation. Be careful mixing alcohol and Internet, and look out for friends who are about to.
- The Front-Page Rule: What goes online may stay online, but that presents great reward, not just great risk. “Think about the front-page when you share, not just out of fear but also with an eye toward opportunity.”
- The Golden Rule: Treat others the way you would want to be treated, just as you would offline. Share what you can. Give credit where credit is due. Boost up good work and the people who create it.
After Jarvis has explored the history of privacy that has led up to the web-dominated world we presently operate in, he acknowledges that we are at an important junction in the way we share information on the web: “There are only two possible choices: to resist it, which is futile, or to understand it and find the opportunities in it.”
Are you resisting, embracing opportunity, or some combination thereof? Tell us where you are on your parabolic relationship with privacy in the comments below.