Web giants must get more public about privacy policies

I really hope that you've all been reading the Wall Street Journal's continuous, aggressive coverage of the digital privacy policies — or lack thereof — of some of the biggest Web sites on the Internet. The stories are being published under the “What They Know” banner, and they provide all manner of insight into what you should and shouldn't expect when you begin visiting particular Web sites.

The stories that are of most interest to me are, admittedly, those about Facebook because that is the social site I use the most although I am starting to wonder about Twitter, honestly. One of the latest articles in the series talks about how some of the third-party applications you're using on the platform might be transmitting your digital “ID.” Since I don't use many of these applications (particularly one of the major offenders, Farmville) I know I have less to worry about than most. But I don't know what else I don't know, so it gives me pause every time I log on now.

Anyone whose children use MySpace should read the latest entry in the series, which discusses how the site might be sharing information with adverstisers.

My point in pointing to these articles is that I personally have been woefully uninformed and inquisitive about my own exposure. I can't even imagine what people with children are going through. One of my friends recently allowed his daughter to create a Facebook account. Let's just say that she is not of the “age” where should be doing so. I'm sorry, but what are you thinking?

I recently had a chance to see one of the rising stars of digital privacy, Danah Boyd of Microsoft, talk at a conference about emerging technologies in Boston. One of the things that Ms. Boyd is studying is the cycle between of how social behavior influences how technology is designed and, subsequently, how technology then changes social behavior. It's fascinating. “Having a sense of privacy is about controlling the social situation,” she says. “We speak privately in public all the time.”

I have to say that what Ms. Boyd is doing is very important work and the fact that she works for Microsoft is all the more intriguing.

Here in the United States, believe it or not, privacy isn't explicitly protected in the Constitution. The most well-known privacy law is probably the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which is the law that is supposed to protect the confidentiality and unauthorized disclosure of your medical records.

But privacy is one of those things that most socially ept people honor. It's time for the executives at some of these big social media and Web companies to start thinking more carefully about the norm for socially acceptable behavior, whether or not they agree with that norm. Yes, this debate is somewhat generational, but that really shouldn't matter. At the very least, the privacy policies of these companies should be very public. Then, at least, social media visitors and Web surfers can make informed decisions about where they will and will not visit.


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