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The Growing Privacy-Publicacy Fault-line -- The Tension Underneath World Data Privacy Day

Given that January 28th is World Data Privacy Day, its instructive to examine why there is such increasing tension underneath the surface of the Internet over the issue of privacy. I believe there is a growing "faultline" between two opposing tectonic forces -- one that believes in online privacy and the other which believes in the opposite -- online publicacy.

  • (I coined the term "publicacy" in my July 2008 House testimony on online privacy because Internet technology has created the need for an antonym to describe the opposite of privacy.
  • Many in the Web 2.0 community believe in the "publicacy ethos" where if technology innovation can make information public, it should be public and that there should be no permission or payment required to access, use or remix this new 'public' information.)

    I.  Why are there opposing tectonic plates of privacy and publicacy?

    A.  The growing pressure for privacy is captured in a Consumer Reports Survey from 9-28-08: "Consumer Reports Poll: Americans Extremely Concerned About Internet Privacy: Most Consumers Want More Control Over How Their Online Information Is Collected & Used."

  • “Americans are clearly concerned with how their personal information is being collected and used by internet companies,” said Joel Kelsey, policy analyst with Consumers Union. “The vast majority of consumers want more control over their personal information online and want the ability to stop internet companies from tracking and profiling them.”
  • "...72 percent are concerned that their online behaviors were being tracked and profiled by companies."
  • "The poll revealed that 93 percent of Americans think internet companies should always ask for permission before using personal information and 72 percent want the right to opt out when companies track their online behavior."

So what type of private information are we talking about?

  • ComputerWorld has a new excellent and disturbing new piece which catalogues "What the Web knows about you."
  • It underscores the big disconnect between the privacy perception people have (captured in the poll above) and the publicacy reality of the Web.

    B.  The growing pressure for "publicacy" comes in large part from the Silicon Valley/Web 2.0 movement which sees privacy as an unrealistic expectation in the Internet age. This publicacy ethos was best captured by then Sun Microsystem's CEO Scott McNealy's famous quote in 1999: "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it."

    • Those who advocate the publicacy ethos for the Internet tend to be from the Silicon Valley/Web 2.0 community for two big reasons:
      • First, they view privacy not as a responsibility, but as a problem, cost or inefficiency to the Web 2.0 business model, innovation and growth. 
      • Second, they view publicacy as the monetization engine, or the Goldmine of the web, because the information that the average person wishes to be private is exactly the information that is most valuable to the publicacy business models -- since it enables extremely targetted advertising and micro-marketing.
        • Moreover, the most intimate private information is by definition the most valuable information on the Web, because it represents a previously-hidden, and/or deeply personal intention, feeling or belief -- that can be taken advantage for monetary gain. 
    • In other words, why is there such a steady and marked erosion of privacy on the Internet? That's because much of the Silicon Valley/Web 2.0 business model is fueled by privacy/publicacy arbitrage.  

    II.  Why are pressures on the privacy/publicacy fault-line only going to increase in the future?

    First, the Web 2.0 trend towards ever-more-sophisticated uses of Internet information on people "is the basis of an emerging field called collective intelligence," per John Markoff's excellent NYT article: "You're leaving a digital trail. Should you care?"  Every succession of Web 2.0 technology innovation is finding ever more powerful and lucrative uses for peoples' private information.

    Second, the continued trend towards a more digital paperless society, means eventually most of everyones information -- including their most private information about their health -- will be digitized and more available to publicacy-based businesses. The economic stimulus's multi-billion dollar investment in digitizing the nation's health records in five years will put potentially the most valuable private trove of personal infomation ever, into the digital/Internet domain for the publicacy business models to exploit.

    Third, the move towards cloud computing heralded in Nicholas Carr's great book, "The Big Switch," means that less and less of our private information, documents, etc. will reside on our own hard disks, which we have control over, but will increasingly reside in multiple copies in data centers around the world -- outside of an individual's physical control. 

    Fourth, the trend towards measuring a company's comittment to privacy, by how short a time they retain private data records before they are partially anonymized, represents a clever publicacy misdirection from the real privacy issues that matter. Do consumers truly control how their private information is used? What information is collected and for what specific purpose? How is it used? What system of safeguards or internal controls are in place to protect private information from breaches or abuse? 

    Fifth, the trends towards search personalization and GPS location driven search add whole new dimensions of private information that will become available to the publicacy business models to exploit.

    Bottom line:

    Tension is growing on the fault-line between the public's expectation of, and need for, privacy protection, and the publicacy business community, which views privacy expectations as a cost/inefficiency -- and a threat to their business model.

    The mega-trends of collective intelligence, digitization of records, cloud computing, privacy misdirection, search personalization, location-driven search, and others are all adding pressure to the privacy/publicacy fault-line -- which means it is only a matter of time before there is a public earthquake over this issue.