Why Pete Cashmore is Wrong on Privacy

Internet superstar Pete Cashmore wrote an article on CNN about ten big trends for 2010. As usual, Pete’s on the mark, but his last point strikes me as not fully on target.

“We’re seeing the ongoing voluntary erosion of privacy through public sharing on Facebook and Twitter, the rise of location-based services and the inclusion of video cameras in a growing array of devices,” writes Cashmore.

Saying there’s a “voluntary erosion of privacy” is taking a stand on one side of a multi-faceted issue, and it obscures the benefits of sharing and personal information distribution. An erosion of privacy implies that people are giving less thought to their personal public/private sphere, but in fact the opposite is true.

Because of online social services and geo-location, the barriers are lower than ever to determine your personal line between public and private. Lower barriers to entry naturally encourage people to explore sharing opportunities that they didn’t have before.

So people are actually being more thoughtful (not less!) about their privacy, its limits, and where they want to sit on the privacy spectrum. Cashmore’s proposed erosion of privacy is actually an individual testing of limits using forms of communication that weren’t previously available.

So do people make mistakes? Sure, but it’s because they’re testing their own limits and exploring their place in the world around them. Sometimes ignorance leads to accidental disclosure of previously private information, but that’s a problem technology can solve. What technology has enabled is far greater – the ability to share your life with others, meet new people, and gain from their knowledge, experiences, etc.

And what has enabled that explosion of humanity is the idea that you have more granular control over your privacy. If you didn’t have that granular control (think back to pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, etc), you would by default assume all of your life was private, even among people with whom who may now be willing to make it more public.

So you can share particular pieces of your life and maybe even consciously make the decision that those pieces are the ones you think will be most valuable to others. And you can keep others closed off from the rest. And that’s not an erosion of privacy at all, but instead an expansion of the limits of humanity, and and exploration of how sharing our own knowledge can contribute to the common good.

3 thoughts on “Why Pete Cashmore is Wrong on Privacy

  1. Hey Greg,
    Thanks for taking the time to write a detailed response!
    Yes, privacy is a complex one … I think I’ve yet to write in a way that captures its many nuances. I actually wrote one of my first CNN columns on the benefits of sharing, but I still feel this one misses the mark – I’m not totally happy with it:
    Ultimately I want to convey that privacy is about control … if you’re voluntarily sharing, is that really a privacy issue since you took the decision to share?
    So yes, I agree I’m wrong on privacy. I think everyone is a little bit wrong on it and I’ve yet to see an article that truly captures this multi-faceted issue. I’d love to see such an article if one exists!


  2. In an extreme sense, this “voluntary erosion of privacy” reminds me of what happened during the mortgage crisis. Suddenly, people were given greater choice on how to structure their home mortgage’s. In certain cases, people who weren’t financially sophisticated made bad decisions or were led into bad decisions.
    Now with social networking and other online tools, everyone has the ability to decide how much to open up or has some of that ability taken away, supposedly for the good of the group. While we have to remember that Facebook is a private company, in theory held to a different standard than a government entity that has regulated privacy controls, the size and power of the social network enables it to do a lot of damage… or good.
    I’d rather err on the side of greater privacy than less privacy.


  3. Right – if you’re voluntarily sharing it’s not a privacy issue. But it’s becoming increasingly tough to know just *what* you’re sharing and with whom. Facebook is the obvious example; Twitter and other networks are by default more public and therefore easier to understand.


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