Privacy remains a social norm

Recently, a considerable amount of controversy ensued when Mark Zuckerberg, head of the world’s most popular online social network, Facebook, was misquoted as saying, “privacy is no longer a social norm.” What he actually said was: “People have really gotten comfortable, not only with sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

But few appear to recall his exact words – the take-away (erroneous though it may be), was that Mr. Zuckerberg no longer considered privacy to be a social norm (reflected in the many calls I received, asking me to respond to that statement). While I would not presume to speak for Mr. Zuckerberg, having spoken with his staff, they confirmed that his words were taken out of context.


What I emphatically submit is that there is little evidence to change our view that privacy remains a social norm.   Privacy relates to freedom of choice and control in the sphere of one’s personal information – choices regarding what information you wish to share, and perhaps more importantly, what you do not want shared with others. What has changed, however, is the means by which personal information is now readily exchanged, at the speed of light.

In the past, personal information was kept largely private because of limited personal exchange systems (i.e., live contact, telephone, snail mail).  The technological means by which such information may now be shared has exploded – it is that which has changed meteorically, not the collapse of privacy as a social norm.  No doubt, technology may have an effect on a person’s ultimate choice of what personal information to share, but it should still be the individual who makes that choice – a decision which is conditional, not only on technology, but on a variety of other factors and needs in one’s life.

Let me speak for a moment as a psychologist (in my former life). The human condition requires connection – we are social animals who seek out contact with each other. We also seek out privacy – moments of solitude, intimacy, quiet, reserve, and control – personal control.  Both these interests can and do exist, concurrently. They have co-existed for centuries and must continue to do so, for the human condition requires both. The fact that social media are growing exponentially does not negate that equation. What this explosion in technology does bring into question, however, is whether it is possible to preserve the notion of data protection in the online world. Can we continue to control/protect the personal information that we share with others in social media, or are such media essentially becoming public spheres?

In response to these questions, let me point out the importance of taking a “positive-sum” instead of a zero-sum approach (get rid of the “versus”) in tackling this issue. By adopting a positive-sum lens, one can easily see that people can and do have multiple interests, that may all co-exist with each other. Take the growth of online social networks and privacy, as a case in point. In this world of major multi-tasking and limited attention span, taking a zero-sum (win/lose) approach, where the strengthening of one interest (connecting) leads to a reduction in another “opposing” interest (privacy), is not only very limiting, but rarely productive; it is also an approach that may be considered technologically “lazy.” Alternatively, taking a positive-sum (win/win) approach is doubly-enabling – facilitating social connections and privacy.

The amount of personal information that is shared at any point in time, and to whom, is a decision that is the result of a complex process that waxes and wanes over a person’s lifetime.  It is not that privacy has stopped being the norm; it is that privacy is a dynamic that is a complex function based on an individual’s needs and choices – choices that must be respected and strongly protected if we are to maintain freedom and liberty in our society. This will largely depend on the measures taken by both online social networks to embed easily accessible, privacy-protective controls into their offerings, and the willingness of people to use them – both will play an important role.

 To find more about Privacy by Design, go to or follow PbD on Twitter @embedprivacy

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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