In recent times, social networking giant Facebook has found itself in the spotlight again, and under the gun regarding its complex privacy settings. Last month Facebook responded to growing user discontent with the introduction of new privacy controls that are more straightforward, easier to use and most importantly, that give users greater control over their personal information. As a Privacy Commissioner and someone deeply interested in privacy, I think that Facebook has taken a firm step in the right direction.
As I keep saying – privacy is all about personal control and freedom of choice. Privacy, at its base, relates to an individual’s control over their own personal information and data flows, and the freedom to choose if and when it should be collected and used. The German concept of “informational self-determination” captures this notice of control very well.
Earlier this year, I wrote an op-ed for the Globe and Mail to correct the mistaken attribution to Mark Zuckerberg saying, “privacy is no longer a social norm.” What he actually said was, “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”
While a cynic may equate that statement with privacy not being a social norm, I do not believe that’s the case. Clearly things are changing, but the nature of what is changing is the way in which people exchange their information, not our values when it comes to the ongoing need for privacy in our lives. In the past, the exposure of personal information was far more limited, but with the growth of the Internet and social media, the amount of personal information that we share has increased exponentially. What this does not mean, however, is that an individual should no longer have a choice as to what information they wish to share – this choice must prevail.
What encouraged me about Facebook’s latest privacy changes was the reinstatement of a level of user control that was previously stripped away, and which is said will remain “persistent” – holding well into the future. Facebook has recognized that its users should have the ability to connect online while also having the option of protecting their privacy. I have consistently advocated for taking a positive-sum (win/win) approach, rather than the dated zero-sum (win/lose), whereby people are forced to forgo privacy for some other functionality – be it security or social networking.
Facebook is an organization that, while less than a decade old, has experienced explosive growth – reaching 500 million users. So it is literally adapting and growing on a daily basis, learning every step of the way. The recent changes to its privacy controls reflect a greater understanding that people and organizations can have multiple interests that can, indeed, co-exist.
Facebook’s new privacy controls aside, I feel compelled to remind people that ultimately, it is their responsibility to protect their privacy. While Facebook must provide the tools to do so, users still need to exercise responsibility for using those tools and deciding how they wish to share their information. It’s all about awareness, education and personal responsibility. Remember that privacy is about freedom – freedom of choice – your choice to either protect your privacy or forego the effort – the choice is yours to make.