LinkedIn founder dead wrong about privacy being just for ‘old people’

Here we go again. Once more, the chief of a major online social network has called into question the relevance of privacy in today’s connected world. This time it is Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, who recently said that “privacy is an ‘old people’ issue.” Really? He’s dead wrong

What is most unfortunate is that Mr Hoffman, like many of his peers, looks at privacy narrowly, through the wrong lens. He thinks along

Ann Cavoukian, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario
Ann Cavoukian, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario

the lines of classic zero-sum: you can only have more of one interest, not another. This is nonsense. People need to connect and have moments of solitude, reflection, intimacy – namely, privacy.

Privacy relates to freedom of choice and control over one’s own personal information – that hasn’t changed, despite the explosion of online social media. In fact, the need for privacy has grown in the face of deceptive practices online, such as identity theft and cyber bullying. Privacy has evolved, with context playing a key role. The onus is now on social media platforms to provide users with clear and simple privacy tools  to enable user control.

Mr. Hoffman’s comment that privacy is only for “old people” is not only misguided, it’s plain wrong, as demonstrated by the findings of several research studies:

  • A 2010 Survey by the UC Berkeley School of Law found that young adults were in harmony with older Americans regarding their concerns about privacy. In fact, 88% of respondents aged 18-24 (compared to 92% overall) believed there should be a law requiring websites and advertising companies to delete all stored information about individuals;
  • A 2010 Harvard study by Dana Boyd and Eszter Hargittai: “Our results challenge widespread assumptions that youth do not care about and are not engaged with navigating privacy … our review of the literature suggests that young people care deeply about privacy…”
  • Pew Internet & American Life Project released a report in 2010 that found 71% of Facebook users aged 18-29 reported actively changing their privacy settings, while only 62% of those aged 30-49, and 55% of those aged 50-64, had taken that proactive step to manage their information;
  • A 2011 study by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada found that those aged 18-34 were more likely to be aware of and use restrictive privacy controls compared to older respondents.

Mr Hoffman’s comment reminds me of a high-profile misquote from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg: “privacy is no longer a social norm” (which he didn’t actually say, but that was the erroneous take-away from his comments). Both represent the flawed logic that the strengthening of one interest (connecting online) will invariably lead to a reduction in an “opposing” interest (privacy).

You can reverse this mistaken view by substituting a positive-sum, win-win strategy in its place – one that allows us to interact online and excercise control over our personal information. We can, and must,  have both – the future of privacy … the future of freedom, may well depend on it.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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