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Is Privacy Dead or Just Very Confused? panel recap

By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 20, 2009

Judith Donath, Alice Marwick, and Siva Vaidhyanathan
Judith Donath, Alice Marwick, and Siva Vaidhyanathan
Photo by Gary Miller

Is Privacy Dead or Just Very Confused?

Saturday, March 14, 10-11am, Room A

The quiet susurration of thousands of fingers gently cascading over hundreds of whisper-quiet laptop keyboards provided a strangely soothing layer of background white noise during a panel that barely scratched the surface of what is rapidly turning out to be the most important question of the Internet age. When everything from CCTV to Twitter, Facebook, and Google allows and indeed encourages us to remove the few barriers to personal privacy that still exist, what does privacy mean?

"Privacy is not a static concept," noted moderator Danah Boyd of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. "What does it mean when you're on Facebook and MySpace and you're trying to negotiate different audiences when you don't necessarily have control over how your information spreads?"

Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of The Googlization of Everything, is concerned about, specifically, the nature of the transaction that occurs between that information supercorp, i.e., Google, and those who interact with it, i.e., everyone. "If you're like me, you're someone who registers with Google, registers with Gmail, and does a series of searches, and if you're even a little bit aware of all that Google offers you, then you are probably cognizant of the fact that there are some levels of control that Google grants to you, although they're not obvious."

That lack of obviousness and users' ability to discover and then work within its borderline-hidden constraints is key to understanding both Google's notions of privacy and our own. Google has for a long time now come bundled with Apple's in-house browser, Safari, but figuring out how to "opt out" of the search behemoth's various privacy strictures is often baffling to the user.

"I'd like to explode two ideas regarding privacy," noted Vaidhyanathan. "First, the notion that most of us are oversharers doesn't mitigate the general concern for individuals being able to control how they are represented in the world, especially when it comes to powerful institutions [like Google].

"Secondly, the notion ... that privacy is a substance that can be measured. [Which] assumes that we are sitting there with privacy in our wallets and divvying out some limit while retaining others as if that's a conscious and effective act."

Which it isn't. If there's a consensus here, it's that inequalities in information flow – we blog celebrities as though we were hunting them, but we would prefer not to be the quarry ourselves – are fundamentally linked to the notion of being able to clearly and knowingly control our own data flow. Opting in or out of a particular social situation is relatively easy in the real world but increasingly Byzantine within the online context. The ball is in our court, but it's Google (and similar info-rich corporations) that, for the moment at least, controls the ball.

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