privacy matters

What is going on with Facebook’s constant gyrations about privacy policy?  Does anyone really care?

A little while ago I suggested that online privacy concerns are best addressed by free market solutions, not governmental regulation.  I’ve discussed the topic with quite a few entrepreneurs, investors and professional marketers, and the overwhelming view in that group is that regular consumers just don’t care about online privacy.  “They” say:

  • privacy is too complicated a topic for consumers to understand
  • no one reads privacy policies
  • consumers can be distracted from privacy concerns with the offer of just about any shiny object

Much of that might be true – but I also took the time to talk to a bunch of “regular” consumers.  And these things are definitely true:

  • consumers know that their privacy is being compromised by many online services
  • consumers do not like being taken for granted
  • consumers will avoid services that abuse their information, and will seek services that use their information properly

These two sets of “truths” are not mutually inconsistent.  To me, they add up to:   Online services can gain a competitive advantage by giving consumers the most sensible default choices along with the right advanced options for privacy – make it simple, but make it right.  I think Facebook believes this, and that’s why they keep tinkering with their policies.  They understand that a lot of their initial attraction was a result of making different privacy assumptions than more open services like FriendFeed and Twitter.  They know that even if no one ever reads their privacy policy, if they make the wrong choices about privacy, they will lose users.  As they saturate their available audience, they have to figure out how to strike the right balance among their different demographic bases, all the while competing with the advantages that more open services have.

These are extremely nuanced choices, but getting them right makes the barrier to competitive threat all the more defensible.  And these are product choices; this is something that many I’ve talked to misunderstand:  people think that this privacy stuff is just legal mumbo jumbo or regulatory mishmash.  That’s plain wrong – laws and regulations are just the cart behind the horse.  In a social product where community is paramount, policy choices are product choices.

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3 thoughts on “privacy matters

  1. As an anecdotal observation – my late-teen and 20-something friends have far fewer concerns about privacy than my older friends. They’ve grown up with the expectation that most things will find their way to Google, and they don’t seem overly concerned about it.

    With the services people differentiate as public versus private, try seeing them as spaces for keeping up with old friends versus meeting new friends. Some of the concerns about privacy may remain, but things like Twitter’s imposed brevity add value that’s missed from the privacy perspective.

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  2. Yeah, no question that people’s expectation of privacy evolve through generations. But I think the notion that “the younger generation lives in the open” (as in http://nymag.com/news/features/27341/ ) is easy to misinterpret at this point. Does it mean that the new generation has a permanent attitude change, or just a particular form of youthful expression?

    I’m not so sure that the kids who live in the open now will continue to do so as they age. It’s possible that young people simply have less to hide – or rather, less reasons to hide. If we had FB when I was younger, I’m sure I would have had lots of embarrassing things on it. And I’m also sure I would have cleaned a lot of that up, if possible, as I got older.

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  3. hai ginsudo…, i’m really interest in this topic. Actually i’m a degree student, working on my final year project and i also came up with this topic especially in social networking sites. I wonder if i can have your email so that i can address you some questions to help me doing my project. If you don’t mind. thanks a lot!!

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