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Saturday, 22 May 2010

Why make privacy complicated?

The current 'row' about Facebook's privacy settings, and the similar 'affair' about privacy on Google Buzz raise one significant question: why do companies like Facebook and Google make privacy so complicated? That, it seems, is one of the key problems, particularly in Facebook's case. According to the New York Times, Facebook's privacy policy has 50 different settings and 170 options, and the policy is longer than the US Constitution - closing in on 6,000 words.

Why? Is it complicated simply because privacy itself is complicated? Well, it's certainly true that privacy isn't as simple and clear cut as some might imagine, but does that really mean that privacy policies, and privacy options need to be so complex as to require a law degree to even begin to understand? It's hard to justify - and for companies that demonstrate immense creativity when it comes to designing new products and services, and excellent ways to make those products and services simple to use and easy to understand, it does seem quite surprising that they can't make their privacy policies easy to understand and their privacy options simple to use. They have the experience and the expertise to find a way - if they really want to.

So why don't they? Two reasons immediately spring to mind, one simple and in some ways reasonable, the other much more pernicious. The first is that until recently they simply didn't care enough about it - and didn't think their users cared enough about it. A privacy policy was something that only concerned lawyers (to cover their potential liabilities) and geeks (who are those who bleat on about privacy), and lawyers and geeks don't need things to be simple to understand and use - they need things to cover all the relevant issues in a logical and coherent fashion.... which leads to documents the size of the US constitution and 170 options and 50 different settings. What's more, they want their creative minds and experienced programmers to be working on the 'important stuff', not wasting time and money on something like privacy policies that no-one really care about. So, from a business point of view, putting effort into making privacy simple and understandable would be wasteful. And boring, too, for the creative people.

The second possible reason is far more shady - maybe they want to make privacy complicated because they don't want people to know what they do and what the implications are? If an ordinary user has to wade through a document the size of the US constitution, and spend their time choosing between 170 options and 50 settings, the chances are that they simply won't bother. And if they don't bother, and leave the settings on what Facebook choose as the defaults, then everything's much happier, at least for Facebook.

I wouldn't like to suggest that the second is true - the first is far more likely. However, if the second does have an element of truth to it, we might start to see that over the next year or two. Public interest in privacy appears to be growing - the question is how companies like Facebook respond to it. If things change, and change quickly, that would tell us a lot. If they don't, and if there is more prevarication and less action, that would tell us something else entirely.

4 comments:

  1. I tend not to subscribe to conspiracy theories, but I do suspect that you are spot on here. Zuckerberg has made quite plain that he believes that people will one day be happy with much more transparent lines between them and the outside world, and by 'suggesting' new privacy settings under the guise of new privacy features I suspect he is indeed trying to trick his users into becoming more transparent and therefore more valuable to his real sources of capital. You are right to argue that the Facebook generation tends to undervalue all but their most sensitive their personal data -- but with Facebook wielding such power atop its hidden ideology, what chance does Joe Public have?

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  2. It will be interesting to see how and whether people in the 'Facebook generation' end up being more or less 'savvy' about privacy, and end up caring more or less about privacy in the end. It could go either way - in some senses I'm sure Zuckerberg is right, people do seem to be more willing to share things with their 'friends' than they used to. In other senses, though, people seem to be learning that they can wield power against the powerful - indeed, that Facebook itself allows them to do so. They've forced Facebook to backtrack more than once. They could do again.

    It's interesting, too, that we now have a government that openly boasts about being 'privacy friendly'. The fact that they think such a stance could be popular is quite a statement in itself.

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  4. UPDATE - Facebook do at least seem to be saying they're doing something about this:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/10145863.stm

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