Whose Privacy – Yours or Mine?
The White House has invited comment on its proposal to scale back a 2000 ban on use of “cookies” and other tracking technologies on federal websites. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra and OMB’s Michael Fitzpatrick defended the proposal on the White House blog back in June. The news raises (once again) the unsettled question of regulating online privacy. But before the debate begins anew, a threshold question begs to be asked: how do we define privacy in a world where the Internet is becoming such a critical part of daily life?
A recent Pew Study suggests that Internet users fall into two, very different categories (although the study does not attempt to quantify what percentage of total Internet users each group comprises). The first group regularly divulges their personal information through blogs, social networking sites and other online technologies. In contrast, the second group remains guarded about discussing personal details online, viewing the Internet simply as a utility – for research, news and perhaps the occasional purchase.
So when we talk about privacy online, whose concept of privacy are we referring to? The Internet user who routinely puts their life online and views an embarrassing disclosure of personal information as a necessary rite of passage? Or the Internet user who carefully calibrates their online behavior to avoid disclosure of any personal details?
If we accept the notion that Internet users have different definitions of what is private, then the need for more empirical data and the integration of such research into internet policy making becomes apparent. As regulators increase their oversight of online activities, they must first examine the nature of the audience they seek to regulate. Industry and other stakeholders should work with regulators to identify a research-gathering process. And because the expectations of what constitutes privacy online changes daily, the identified process must be dynamic – just like the Internet itself. Such a process will create a policy that reflects differing attitudes towards online privacy, while meeting the needs of an evolving Internet.
Now that’s a choice that all Internet users – regardless of how they view privacy – can accept.