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Talking privacy at household & international levels

We – all of us (well, maybe all of us above the age of around 28) – are in a very uncomfortable place where personal privacy’s concerned. It seems all of our children are social Web users and we all have growing digital footprints ourselves, whether we’re on Facebook or not, and we’re pretty uneasy about the implications of all this intentional and inadvertent sharing for us as well as our kids. The Wall Street Journal investigates social networking privacy breaches (see this) and TechCrunch suggests that story is unintended cover for “the real privacy scandal … the feds’ spying” on social site users.” An international conference on the subject in Jerusalem this past week illustrated our collective confusion about how to protect greater openness and privacy at the same time. Participants (national privacy commissioners, regulators, industry, etc.) spoke of how “longstanding privacy norms are being increasingly challenged by the massive popularity of social networks” and “were asked to question whether privacy norms are at a breaking point with conventional laws, regulations and principles rendered irrelevant in the face of the generational and technological shift,” reports University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist in the Toronto Star. Jules Polonetsky and Christopher Wolf of the Washington-based Future of Privacy Forum wrote in the Huffington Post that US law brings to the global discussion a uniquely “focused and flexible” that has led to “better privacy protection [in these digital times] than ever” – and, “interestingly,” they say, “the idea of self-regulation is gaining a foothold of sorts in the EU, just as legislative proposals for comprehensive privacy law been introduced in the US Congress.”

Professor Geist says protecting everybody’s privacy and publicity at the same time isn’t as impossible as at seems: “At least three strategies to address both desires emerged”: 1) the idea of default social networking settings that start with greater privacy and allow users to be as public as they choose (rather than making the default public); 2) better user education (e.g., we at ConnectSafely are about to co-publish a Parents’ Guide to Facebook; and 3) regulation – “although it will invariably lag behind the rapid pace of technology,” Geist writes.

I do think social network sites need to employ more-private defaults, at least for minors, while we’re all figuring out new privacy-protection norms (e.g., asking friends’ permission before posting photos that include them), but I do think regulation is not just laggy but also a blunt instrument at a time with policymakers and regulators at least as confused as parents about how to protect young people’s online privacy (or not wearing their parent hats enough!). User education is best because it happens at every level, from international to household, and can be calibrated to the pace of change in both technology and children. Friending your kids on Facebook and looking at privacy settings together is prime media-literacy education, parents! And we’ll get past this, people – pretty soon our digitally less confused children will be policymakers and parents as well as social networkers.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I don’t know how I’ll handle all this when the time comes that my children want social network accounts. Cross that bridge when I come to it, I suppose!

    November 1, 2010
    • blogadmin #

      Thanks for your comment, Francisco. Based on the research that’s emerging and my own experience as the parents of teens, I bet you’ll all be just fine. You could even practice a little before they’re teens by trying a SN training-wheels site like or watching over their shoulders when they’re in kids’ virtual worlds or playing videogames (or better, playing with them!), but it’s mostly about an ongoing conversation about being a good friend and respecting self and others – which usually fairly naturally spills over into their online experiences. Good luck!

      November 1, 2010

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