Privacy is Hard Because People Change Their Minds

If there’s one issue that unites major Internet giants like Google (s goog) and Facebook, it’s privacy. Google tries to offer a new service with Buzz, and triggers a series of privacy land mines; Facebook tries to offer new services and runs afoul of privacy concerns as well, then it changes its privacy settings and (according to some) makes the problem worse instead of better. Why is privacy so hard? Sociologist Danah Boyd, who specializes in the way people use social networks, says in the latest issue of MIT’s Technology Review magazine that it’s because “the way privacy is encoded into software doesn’t match the way we handle it in real life.”

Privacy settings are often binary: show this photo to these people, but not this update, and so on. Check a box, click a button. But the real world allows for many shades of grey when it comes to privacy, says Boyd. If you happen to be in a restaurant having a meal with someone, for example, you both know implicitly that you’re in public and therefore whatever you do is public by default, without having to click on any terms-of-use agreements or read pop-up disclosure statements. At the same time, you can easily lean close to the other person and whisper a word or two privately. As Boyd describes it:

We count on what Erving Goffman called “civil inattention”: people will politely ignore us, and even if they listen they won’t join in, because doing so violates social norms. Of course, if a close friend sits at the neighboring table, everything changes. Whether an environment is public or not is beside the point. It’s the situation that matters.

In other words, we all view privacy differently based on the situation we’re in, the other people around us and our relationships with them, our goals and desires within that particular situation, and so on. These things combine to create a complex web of competing pressures and incentives related to whether we keep something private or not: a web so complex that it makes a mockery of the various tools that most services such as Facebook use to help you manage your privacy. Even the ability to create specific lists of friends who have access to certain things quickly becomes cumbersome, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged. However, Facebook has to make the attempt because it is being pressured by both users and governments over the issue.

At the other end of the spectrum is a site like 4chan, where founder Christopher “Moot” Poole has pursued a defiantly anonymous approach to community, by allowing almost total freedom for users to post content without any repercussions whatsoever. The result is a kind of anything-goes Wild West atmosphere — as described, coincidentally enough, in another piece in the latest issue of Technology Review magazine. This kind of community can also have some positive aspects as well, as Poole argued in a recent presentation at the TED conference (embedded below). Anonymity can often allow people to do constructive things as well as destructive things.

So how do we go about managing our multiple online selves and our constantly shifting spectrum of privacy demands? Some companies are trying to make it easier for users to take an ad-hoc approach to divulging privacy information such as location, for example. A startup called EchoEcho offers a service that allows you to request someone’s location quickly and easily, and they can decide to tell you or not, depending on where they are, what they’re doing, and what relationship you have with them. EchoEcho founder Nick Bicanic says this makes it easier for people to change their minds on who they want to tell, rather than just constantly broadcasting their location to everyone.

As Liz has described, however, privacy isn’t just a technical problem, and it isn’t just a business problem. It’s also a cultural problem and to some extent an educational or behavioral problem. And it’s one that’s likely to get harder before it gets easier.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Why New Net Companies Must Shoulder More Responsibility

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user hyku