If privacy and the Internet is a disparate match, is sacred personal space an endangered phenomenon?

5 03 2010

Privacy is something we think we know. However, if you asked someone to define privacy half a century ago, I can almost guarantee that his or her answer would be noticeably different from the answer someone in the present would provide. In essence, what we consider privacy is not what it used to be. A significant influence contributing to the changing perspective on privacy is the Internet.

The Internet is a vast, often uncontrollable, entity that has provided many significant breakthroughs in the ways humans interact. It in due to this influence that some claim the idea of privacy has been turned upside down. Having just completed Daniel Solove’s book, the future of reputation, I am forced to consider how privacy is morphing towards a potential extinction.

Although Solove presents numerous perspectives regarding privacy and personal reputation within online communities, several factors stood out to me in particular.

The first factor is age. When is too young for someone to be inputting their life’s details online for the entire world to absorb? Seven years old is too young in my opinion. This is an example that Solove referenced in that seven year olds are now blogging on the Internet. This presents several problems. For one thing, at seven years old, children are unable to perceive the repercussions of their actions. This is particularly true with regard to intangibles such as online, electronic submissions. Secondly, at such a young age, a person lacks the maturity to effectively weigh risk. In turn, tremendous vulnerability can spring from seemingly innocent blog posts. What happens if a child posts their home address or phone number? If a pedophile happens to be tracking the blog, a serious problem could spring from this seemingly innocent contribution to the online world. Furthermore, actions by minors online affect their parents, as parents are the ones who are legally responsible for their children’s conduct. This allows for the possibility that parents, in addition to their child, could face overtly negative consequences from sharing information online.

Underlying everyone of the privacy related issues examined in Solove’s book are norms. In Solove’s own words, “a norm is a rule of conduct, one less official than a law, but sometimes as improper to transgress…Norms are widely known and widely observed rules of social conduct (84).” That being said, norms serve as the foundation to individual and societal actions. As such, norms have traditionally provided everyone a sense of entitlement to live their life with a measured degree of secrecy, a separation between one self and the prying eyes and ears of others.

Please reread the prior sentence, placing emphasis on the word traditionally.

The Internet may be changing not just the premise of privacy but also the relevancy of the entire concept. One consideration Solove touches on in the book is if privacy has a place in the future? Will there be a need, desire or ability to maintain privacy as humans rapidly accelerate deeper into the twenty-first century? Pondering this possibility within group discussions, classmates of mine predicted what norms maybe utilized in the year 2020 regarding privacy. The primary norms that were predicted include:

  • No anonymous posts online, everything is tied to an identity
  • Opt-in security and privacy protection measures instead of opt-out
  • Expectation to share life online, possibly ostracized if not
  • Expected to make connections with others so as to remain socially relevant
  • Always on, some degree of constant functionality online

I cannot claim to know how many, if any, of these predictions will prove the test of time. One point was raised though relating to these predictions that makes me seriously doubt the benefit of eroding privacy. If privacy were essentially to be expunged, replaced with an always-on mentality, would people become masks or illusions of their true selves as a default protective mechanism to being constantly exposed? Fear of being ostracized for expressing true feelings, opinions and perspectives would result in people living within a shell of their true identities because of the ever-present knowledge that someone is watching.

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