Evolving Standards of Creepery – by “Christopher S – YLT2012”


The Internet seems to care less about privacy than it used to. Sure, there’s a minor uproar every time Facebook is called out on releasing some personal data, but the web isn’t the idealistic bastion of anonymity John Perry Barlow declared it as in the 90s. The key phrase here is every time. People make noise for a few days, then go right back to using it.

At first this seems like a lack of interest, but that’s not necessarily what’s going on. It could just as well be a sign that the supposed breach of privacy wasn’t actually a problem, or that it has been fixed. To their credit Facebook has responded well to specific privacy complaints (see this and this). And even if they hadn’t, the information in question wasn’t particularly dangerous – the worst that could happen is that advertisers get your name and some things you’re interested in.

To me the brief uproars show that people do care about privacy, but it hasn’t yet become a real issue. The phrase “if you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold” contains a grain of truth, but it’s an overly negative way of looking at the situation. It would be more accurate to say that you are paying, just with your personal information rather than cash. To me this is an acceptable arrangement. Advertising is essential to Internet companies, and if they can make more revenue by tailoring ads rather than making them more obnoxious I’m OK with that. As long as people are aware of the transaction, there’s nothing wrong with the Internet working this way.

That people seem to care less than they once did about privacy and other related tech issues isn’t a sign of growing complacency as much as changing attitudes toward technology. There was an issue in the 90s with the “Law of the Horse” on the Internet, the conflict between whether tech issues should be treated as entirely new or if they can be dealt with using existing laws and social norms. We struggle with this today when we complain about online privacy issues even when the Internet gives us more control than we have in the real world (I don’t mean to say that this invalidates the issue; it’s not unreasonable to argue that the Internet should be a place with more privacy).

As a matter of personal preference, I think the Internet should be kept more private than the outside world. I like that ideas can be judged on their own merit without reference to a specific speaker. But as long a privacy policies are clear, there’s nothing ethically wrong going on here. In my view, what has been framed as a legal or ethical issue comes down to what kind of place you think the Internet should be. This is a difficult question, one that I don’t think a lot of people have thought about, but it’s extremely important. That debate might never definitively end (and it shouldn’t), but if we want to answer the privacy question that’s what we need to talk about.

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