Regaining Control of Privacy and Identity: It’s up to Each Individual
By Jeff Sayre
This is a follow-up post to my article, Privacy in the Facebook Era. It was originally a reply to a comment by Chris Messina in that post. As this topic continues to be relevant, I’ve decided to extract my comment from that post, revise it, add to it, and turn it into an article.
Personal freedoms, control over one’s privacy, and the ability to manage one’s identity on the Web have never been in more jeopardy. With Facebook’s continued war on personal privacy, the day when a user no longer has any rights to control their own data is closer at hand. The question is, How should society respond?
Of course, Facebook–or any other corporation–is free to offer services and manage their user base in anyway that benefits their stakeholders—as long as they do not break the laws under which they are obligated to operate. Individuals have the freedom to decide whether or not they agree with Facebook’s policies, in particular as they pertain to privacy and the use of their personal data. They can choose not to use Facebook, Twitter, or any other Social Web network.
I have no issue with corporations making a profit, I am a businessman myself. My argument is that society should not feel comfortable when a few individuals (or in this case a single person) make broad, sweeping decisions about how an individual’s data is managed.
Society should not be complacent or apathetic when a large corporation like Facebook continues to assail personal privacy on one front while purporting to be the de facto provider of Web-based identity on the other. Free societies should strive toward assisting individuals to gain control over their personal data.
Currently, there are inherent barriers to providing users with an easy-to-use mechanism that grants fine, granular control over personal data on the Internet and Web. Most users have their personal data strewn throughout myriad, disparate data silos, across different closed social networks. This makes it difficult to create tools that offer users an efficient and effective way to manage their data, to manage their on-line identity.
Some of the initiatives that open a user’s data up to other applications and networks–the Open Stack, for instance–begin to address this issue. But, as long as users’ personal data remains effectively siloed in government and corporate databases, this vision will not be obtainable.
As the Web matures and new technologies such as Semantic Web protocols and tools become available, solutions to the proverbial Privacy 2.0 and Identity 2.0 debate are possible. Whether corporate adoption rates of those solutions will be sufficient to make them viable is unclear. This is were the wishes and desires of a free society come into play. If there is a sufficient cry to adopt new identity-management protocols, then perhaps we can effect change.
In my article, “A Flock of Twitters: Decentralized Semantic Microblogging”, I offer one such path to a user-driven, user-centric identity management and privacy solution. It does not rely on corporate adoption but instead puts the power back in the hands of individuals.
But there are other solutions that offer great business opportunities to companies that truly listen to users’ concerns over the usurpation of their personal privacy and identity. In the coming decade, those companies that build new interfaces and provide new services that facilitate user-centric identity and privacy management will find their visions rewarded. There is plenty of room for both open source and proprietary solutions in this space.
Whereas Facebook has shown great acumen at growing their small business into a global behemoth, it has lost sight as to the roots of its success—their users’ trust. If the Web’s citizens take a stand and demand that their personal privacy and identity remain their domain, and not the domain of corporations or governments, then companies like Facebook could very well end up being a relic of a Wild-west Web, a bygone time where anything and everything was acceptable in the name of profit.
It is up to society, to the Web’s citizens, to decide how the issue of privacy and identity will turn out. If only a few voice their opinions, if only a few are cognizant of this crisis and its negative ramifications, then Facebook and other corporations will decide how privacy and identity are managed.
If you think privacy and identity are too important to let the few decide how they are managed, then it’s time for you to act. Write about it on your blog, tweet about it, retweet my article, do whatever it takes to get those who trust you in your various social networks to take note, to listen, to understand, and to ultimately act.
UPDATE: April 20, 2011: With Facebook being credited with facilitating the Middle East uprisings and their desires to move in to China, it appears that they may be bowing to pressure to curb free speech in certain parts of the world.
UPDATE: May 8, 2010: Jeff Jarvis published an interesting article on this topic. See Confusing *a* public with *the* public.