It occurred to me yesterday while talking to some people at shul (after services, of course) that when people express concerns over privacy at Facebook and Google, there are really two types of privacy they’re talking about: privacy from individuals, and privacy from corporations.
Most people, it seems, are more concerned with privacy from individuals. Who can see my information? Friends? Bosses? Potential dates? Would-be stalkers? And what info can they see? Uncertainty (and occasionally surprise) about who can see what is what people like to call air-quotes “creepy”.
But this isn’t what bothers me so much. Although Facebook likes to keep us on our toes with ever-changing privacy settings (and defaults), we at least have some control over it. I could make my Twitter account private, could take my address and phone number off the web version of my résumé, could turn off my Facebook wall. That solves problem #1. (At least in the short term, until some 1337 hax0rz publish all of Facebook’s data on 4chan.)
No, what I find far more insidious is that so much of our data is being collected by companies in which incentive arrangements are set up not to favor the users of the product, but users of the enormous datasets that are being collected. As @librarythingtim so succinctly put it, “Why do free social networks tilt inevitably toward user exploitation? Because you’re not their customer, you’re their product.”
I don’t have a problem with corporations in general; what I have a problem with is the use-it-for-“free” business model in which we all pay with our data. I don’t use Gmail, but I do use Dreamhost and MobileMe because I pay not with my data, but with cash.
I know there are concerns about privacy becoming a privilege of the wealthy, and that’s a valid concern, but let’s face it: as a service, Facebook does provide a great deal of utility. At the recently-floated $50 billion valuation, each user is worth under $100. Would you be willing to pay Facebook $8/month (which would earn them far more over the life of a customer than $100) for no ads and to have them exclude your data from all aggregation? I know I would, but I don’t know where the public’s values lie.