Nov 112010

[This is the research paper I turned in earlier this week as a final for my Fundamentals of Media Communications class at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.]

Common Sense in the Commons:

Possible Solutions to Privacy Concerns on the Internet

The “right to privacy” has traditionally been one of the most cherished fictions in the American experience. The fact that there is no such right explicitly stated in the Constitution has not stopped the American people from insisting that the government, corporations, and their fellow man stay out of their business. That absence has also not stopped lawmakers and courts from finding in favor of the privacy of the individual in many cases. Whether it is an explicit “right” or not, Americans can expect at the very least a modicum of privacy. With the advent of the internet a new debate on privacy has become a hot topic both with pundits and around water coolers. It seems that every month we are faced with a horrible tragedy such as the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, a young man who was “outed” as a homosexual when a video of him having sexual relations with a man was posted to the internet. While incidences such as this are without a doubt tragic it is not tragic because the video was posted to the internet. It is tragic for the same reasons it would have been tragic ten years ago or 100 years ago or 1,000 years ago: a young man was so humiliated by the thoughtlessness of others and their disregard for his privacy that he felt he had to make the ultimate choice and kill himself. He could have been “outed” via a photograph in the school newspaper or via good old gossip and the damage still would have been done.

There are no special rules regarding privacy that need to be formulated because we now have this invention called the World Wide Web. The same common sense protocols apply even in this age of permanent and instantaneous posts from friends and mass media. As a matter of fact if we can learn to embrace a more public lifestyle we stand to reap rewards that are unimaginable if we remain stodgily married to the ideas of privacy rooted in the previous century. The very tools that we assume are invading our privacy can be used to protect us and can put the power of disclosure back in our hands.

Some Initial Concerns

In the fall of 1987 President Ronald Reagan nominated Judge Robert Bork for the United States Supreme Court. Bork was not popular with liberals, especially among women’s groups who thought Reagan was using this opportunity to nominate a judge who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s ruling that upheld a woman’s right to an abortion. In an effort to influence Congress and public opinion against Bork a reporter from the liberal Washington, D.C. paper, City Paper, went to Bork’s neighborhood video rental store and had the clerk print out a copy of the judge’s entire video rental history. Ironically there were absolutely no damning rentals listed but the damage had been done. The paper implied, just by publishing an innocuous list of Disney films and Hitchcock thrillers that Bork had rented, that Bork was obviously up to something nefarious. The very fact that a journalistic institution had published the list was enough to make the American public think Bork had rented pornography. Bork’s reputation was damaged and the incident certainly was one of the factors that ended up costing him the nomination. (Garfinkel 72)

In Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century, Simson Garfinkel asks “what business did the video rental store have keeping a list of the movies that Bork had rented, after the movies had been returned?” (73) There are some obvious instances in which it would be beneficial not only to the video rental store but also to Bork as a consumer for such records to be kept and kept indefinitely. Such records could be used to tailor a personal shopping experience for consumers in order to recommend titles that they may not have viewed yet, based on their past rental history, they might enjoy. Such extensive record keeping also helps the store owners keep track of titles that are popular as well as titles that are not being rented so that the proprietor can keep costs low and profit margins high by only keeping in stock those movies that customers historically rent in large numbers. The fundamental issue in the Bork case is not that the video store kept the records in the first place but that the video gave the reporter access to those records which the reporter then made public.

With the advent of the internet and the World Wide Web the topic of privacy and what we as denizens of cyberspace can reasonably expect to keep hidden has become a hotly debated topic. The reporter from the City Paper would have had a much easier time finding the viewing habits of Judge Bork in the early Twenty-First Century than he did twenty years ago. Just type a few keywords into Google and with a few well-placed clicks one can find out more about any given individual than ever before. We have become increasingly more reliant on the Web as a convenient way to shop and find information and that information that we sometimes forget the impermanence that is inherently built into the internet.

How do we reconcile this desire for convenience with the dangers of an invasion of our privacy? Paul Glister, in his book Digital Literacy, claims that “technology can solve the problems it creates.” (257) Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University, using the naming convention made popular by computer programmers who append “1.0” to the first iteration of an application, “2.0” to the second and so on, says that privacy regulations need not stifle the creativity that is at the heart of the internet and that the solution to this problem may be found in surprising places:

Ideally such intervention would not unduly dampen the underlying gerativity. Effective solutions for the problems of Privacy 2.0 may have more in common with solutions to other generative problems than with the remedies associatedwith the decades-old analytic template for Privacy 1.0. (205)

Zittrain is a proponent of solutions coming from private sectors with no financial obligation to influence them. He points to the success of protocols such as robots.txt, which is a line inserted into a Web site’s code that tells a search engine not to index that particular site, and the Creative Commons license agreement as examples of like-minded people coming together in good faith to create protocols that have been tacitly accepted by the Web as a whole. These standards are not owned by any particular group and do not have the backing of any private standards setting organization or law enforcement and as a result Webmasters are more apt to use these standards on their pages. These new protocols go beyond any physical borders and as such are perfectly suited for the internet. The creator of a site always knows where she stands with respect to robots.txt and is assured that any search engine built in any country will conform to the same standards. (223-225)

One solution that has been offered involves actually being more public instead of overreacting to invasions of privacy by becoming even more private. In fact, according to George Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni, “excessive privacy often necessitates state-imposed limits on private choices.” (214) In other words, those in power tend to get paranoid and even more invasive when they notice too many people trying to hide their lives. When those in power get paranoid they tend to abuse their power. The passage of the Patriot Act by the Bush administration in 2001 is an example of this overreaction. The Patriot Act gave the government unprecedented power to track the internet usage of individuals. This power was granted under the guise of protecting Americans from any further terrorist attacks such as those on September 11, 2001. Detractors of the Patriot Act claim that it is a violation of the right to privacy and can lead to the surveillance of innocent people. (Hillstrom 86)

Perhaps the answer lies in the upcoming generation, the generation who will not know a world without the internet. This generation will be connected to the world in ways that we in contemporary society cannot even fathom.  Their lives will be more open and public than even the most connected and progressive of the present generation could imagine or even desire. This “hyper-publicness” may be the solution itself to the dangers of over-sharing and invasions of privacy. The younger generation is willing to accept both the features and dangers of a life online. Eventually the playing field will be level and everybody will have some piece of their past that is publicly viewable online. When this parity is achieved the dangers of over-sharing will disappear. (Zittrain 234)

Jeff Jarvis: A Case Study

Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do?, co-host of the This Week in Google podcast, associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program and the new business models for news project at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism and columnist for the Guardian, is an avid advocate for the benefits of what he calls “publicness” on his blog BuzzMachine. He has said:

With so much discussion — even panic — about privacy today, I fear that we risk losing the benefits of publicness, of the connections enabled by the internet and our interconnected world. If we shift to a default of private, we lose much and I argue that we should weigh that choice when we decide what to put behind a wall — and there are too many walls being build today. But we’re not discussing the benefits of the public vs. the private. (Privacy, publicness & penises)

Jarvis himself practices what he preaches by making some quite intimate details of his life public. In August 2009, Jarvis announced on his blog that he had prostate cancer. (The small c and me) He went on to make quite a few blog posts detailing the medical procedures he went through as part of his treatment for cancer as well as some of the more embarrassing side effects. (Small c: The penis post) He also admonished his male readers to get a PSA blood test because that test revealed the cancer in time to save his life. Almost immediately Jarvis started receiving comments on his blog, emails, tweets, and phone calls from people who had also been affected by prostate cancer congratulating him for being brave enough to tell his story and get the word out about such a delicate yet important subject. He believes that the benefits of sharing this experience have outweighed the dangers and embarrassment. In fact he foresees a day in which such publicness is the norm and that not only individuals but businesses will default to openness. In a Guardian column he said, “openness in [business’s] information and actions must become their default… holding secrets only breeds mistrust and robs them and us of the value that comes from sharing.” (Transparency benefits us all, even when it hurts)


The social networking site Facebook is of primary concern in this question of what we can do to better protect our privacy on the internet not just because they are in any sense more egregious in their privacy violations but because they are such have such a huge user base. According to their press page Facebook has over 500 million users, half of which log into Facebook daily. The average user on Facebook has 130 friends and spends over 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook. (Press Room: Statistics) With that many users and the ad revenue that comes with it, it should come as no surprise that Facebook spent $6,600 lobbying state officials in California to kill the Social Networking Privacy Act. The bill would have levied penalties against social networking sites that displayed the addresses and phone numbers of users under the age of 18 but it was ultimately defeated in the California State Assembly. (Grove) With such a large user base and the apparent willingness to financially influence governments Facebook has become a kind of “Big Bad Wolf” amongst privacy and consumer advocates.

To Jarvis and many other internet pundits, the World Wide Web and social media themselves are the answers to many of the questions raised when we question the benefits of living a more open life on the internet. However there are some real concerns about what these social media sites know about their users and how they are prepared to sell that personal information to the highest bidder. Facebook has recently come under some fire from the Wall Street Journal. In an October 2010, article on their Web site the Journal reported that some third-party companies were selling to advertisers the information they had scraped via apps that users can install on their Facebook pages. (Steel) Although this particular issue was focused not on Facebook itself but on its third-party app developer partners, Facebook is no stranger to these kinds of allegations of privacy invasion. Facebook currently has over half a billion subscribers, all of whom are sharing personal details about their lives and what they like and dislike. This kind of information is very hard for advertisers to pass up and many of them will skirt the law in order to get access to that lucrative data.

In the wake of the Wall Street Journal story Caroline McCarthy, blogger for technology news site, wrote a blog post dispelling some of the myths surrounding the issue of app developers selling personal information to advertisers and questioned who was really at fault. She surmised that the app developers, not Facebook, were at fault and that Facebook was actively suspending the violating services until they terminated the practice of scraping and selling users’ private information. McCarthy also put the onus of responsibility squarely on the users themselves. She explains that if a user is afraid of their information being sold to the highest bidder they can turn off the feature in the privacy settings of Facebook’s new application dashboard although she does admit that the dashboard is not very easy to find. Ultimately McCarthy points out the common sense approach: if a user is afraid of giving information to Facebook or any application developer she can always opt to forego filling out the form asking for that information. (Understanding what Facebook apps really know (FAQ))

If a user does decide to fill out that form though, an important issue that should her is the unintended consequences of sharing personal data. Again Facebook is the poster child for this danger of oversharing. Around the same time that the Wall Street Journal reported on third-party app developers selling personal data Facebook came under fire for some its ad practices. The ads on Facebook work by scraping your profile for keywords and serving up ads designed to target users based on those keywords. IT World reported that Facebook’s ad network could inadvertently “out” gay people to advertisers. As an experiment researchers set up six “dummy” accounts, two claiming to be heterosexual males, two claiming to be heterosexual females, and one each for a fake homosexual male and female. The analysts “found that many ads that did not explicitly refer to sexual preference were shown exclusively to the gay profiles.” When users clicked on these ads their sexual preference was revealed to the advertisers. (Kirk)

A Conclusion

Facebook is far from the only site concerned with tracking your personal information. All social networks and indeed every Web site on the internet can install tracking scripts on your computer to follow what sites you visit and can even determine your personal information without the user being aware she has given permission to release that information. Often this information is incomplete or completely wrong but that does not stop advertisers and other large companies from using information gleaned from cookies installed on users’ browsers to attempt to get a clearer picture the public. Jobs have been lost and disability benefits have been revoked because of because of information employers and government agencies have found online. (Bennett) Increasingly it is becoming the responsibility of users to determine what information they want to make private and public. There are some tools that empower users to make such a decision. One such tool such is the Private Browsing mode available in all modern browsers. This feature, known in Google Chrome as “Incognito,” lets users browse the internet without leaving a trace behind in the form of “cookies,” or the scripts that Web developers install on users’ computers to track them. (Ulmer) Of course, users need to remember that even in Private Browsing mode, any information they enter into a form on a Web site will be sent to that site’s owners. Users still need to understand that the best way of keeping their information private is to avoid putting that information of the Web.

The most important thing for both users of the Web and the creators of Web content to keep in mind is the notion of privacy as a two-way street. When he appeared on CBS Evening News with Katie Couric speaking about the incident at Rutgers University involving the “outing” of Tyler Clementi, Jeff Jarvis remarked, “Once you know something about me, the weight lies with you as you decide how to use that information, whether to spread it, in what light.” (The Rutgers tragedy and privacy and technology) He went on to say:

[I]n enduring morals and ethics — the Golden Rules — we parents remain the teachers and I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit for teaching and our children enough credit for learning well. Those rules pertain no matter the medium or the technology in which human interaction occurs. The Rutgers story is not a tale of technology creating tragedy. It is a story of human tragedy. (The Rutgers tragedy and privacy and technology)

The lesson we as users should learn from the Rutgers tragedy and its ilk is not that we should be afraid of the internet but that we should be mindful of what we are making public when we are on the internet. Creators of Web content and advertisers should be mindful of the vast quantities of sensitive data they are given and the trust users have placed in them to be transparent with the ways in which they will use that data. As always common sense is our best weapon.

Works Cited

Bennett, Jessica. “What the Internet Knows About You.” 22 October 2010. 7 November 2010

Etzioni, Amitai. The Limits of Privacy. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Facebook. Press Room: Statistics. 2010. 7 November 2010 <>.

Garfinkel, Simson. Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly & Associates, Inc., 2000.

Gilster, Paul. Digital Literacy. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997.

Grove, Jennifer Van. “Facebook Lobbied to Kill Social Networking Privacy Act.” 29 October 2010. Mashable. 7 November 2010

Hillstrom, Kevin. Defining Moments: The Internet Revolution. Detroit: Omnigraphics, Inc., 2005.

Jarvis, Jeff. “Privacy, publicness & penises.” 22 April 2010. BuzzMachine. 3 November 2010

—. “Small c: The penis post.” 16 October 2009. BuzzMachine. 3 November 2010

—. “The Rutgers tragedy and privacy and technology.” 2 October 2010. BuzzMachine. 7 November 2010

—. “The small c and me.” 10 August 2009. BuzzMachine. 3 November 2009

—. “Transparency benefits us all, even when it hurts.” 17 August 2009. 4 Novemver 2010

Kirk, Jeremy. “Facebook ads could ‘out’ gay users, researchers say.” 22 October 2010. IT World. 4 November 2010

McCarthy, Caroline. “Understanding what Facebook apps really know (FAQ).” 25 October 2010. The Social. 7 November 2010

Steel, Emily and Geoffrey A. Fowler. “Facebook in Privacy Breach.” 18 October 2010. The Wall Street Journal. 4 November 2010

Ulmer, Hamilton. “Understanding Private Browsing.” 23 August 2010. Blog of Metrics. 7 November 2010

Zittrain, Jonathan. The Future of the Internet – and How to Stop It. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2008.

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