Time magazine is about to name its “Man of the Year,” the person who has made the greatest impression on the previous 12 months. From A to Z, Julian Assange to Mark Zuckerberg nicely bookend the short list and frame one of the great struggles of our epoch: privacy vs. transparency.
The WikiLeaker from Down Under is likely to get the nod for publicizing information from U.S. classified documents. To his way of thinking, candid assessments written for a limited group of decision makers must be exposed as perfidious. Thus, WikiLeaks has informed the world that State Department functionaries think Hamid Karzai is a crook and Italy’s Berlusconi is “feckless, vain, and ineffective.” Uh, tell us something we don’t know.
At the other end of the alphabet, Zuckerberg schemed to tell Facebook’s corporate partners many things they didn’t know about users of his site. He seemed baffled why anyone would want to hold back their personal profiles from the world at large. What are these people afraid of?
For one thing, people don’t want to be commodities to be bought and sold (although that battle is probably already lost). More than that, people instinctively want to be able to control their reputations, which they can’t when information about them is (a) false or (b) once true, but no longer or out of context.
People cling to the idea that they can have separate lives: one for home, one for work, one for friends, and so forth. They also want to be able to reinvent themselves at will – which requires moving on from the past, forgetting, amongst other things, indiscretions that seemed amusing at the time. Yet how can we drop this baggage when the Internet shackles us to every comment or image associated with us?
“A humane society values privacy because it allows people to cultivate different aspects of their personalities in different contexts,” writes Jeffrey Rosen in his outstanding article in the New York Times Magazine in July. “At the moment, the enforced merging of identities that used to be separate is leaving many casualties in its wake.” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/magazine/25privacy-t2.html?hp
It’s not a theoretical issue. Three-quarters of U.S. companies conduct online research on job candidates, according to Microsoft, and seven of ten recruiters report that they have rejected candidates because of discovered photos, discussion-board conversations, or membership in controversial groups.
There’s plenty of grist for the investigator’s mill. Facebook has nearly 500 million members, 22 percent of all Internet users, who spend more than 500 billion minutes a month on the site. Its users share more than 25 billion pieces of content each month (including news stories, blog posts and photos), and the average user creates 70 pieces of content a month. There are more than 100 million registered Twitter users, and the Library of Congress recently announced that it will be permanently house the entire archive of public Twitter posts since 2006.
Now advancing facial recognition technology promises (or threatens) to locate photos of people you’re looking for on the web, even if not identified (“tagged”) in the photo. Social-network aggregator search engines will be combining data from various sources to rank people’s public and private reputations. Then there’s the new web site Unvarnished, where people can write anonymous reviews about anyone. People are already rated on their creditworthiness. Soon they may be judged and ranked on the reputation as parents, dates, employees, neighbors.
By “erasing external memories our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experiences and adjust our behavior,” writes Viktor Mayer-Schönberger in his recent book, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.” The limits of human memory ensure that people’s sins are eventually forgotten. He says “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.”
Here’s the irony: the internet was until recently seen as the great liberator. Hilary Clinton, now on the warpath against WikiLeaks, praised Google for empowering Chinese citizens with information about their government. Remember that New Yorker cartoon from the early 1990s: “On the Internet they don’t know if you’re a dog.” Now the leash is back. We know who and where and what you are, Rover. And we’re never going to let you forget it.
The remedies range from legal maneuvers of dubious value (such as lawsuits to force removal of slanderous information or “Twittergation”) to technological innovations – such as built-in expiration dates for data, controlled by the user. Or just being prudent to the point of paranoia.
Supposedly cavalier about over-sharing, the young are catching up to their elders in matters of privacy. A UC Berkeley study this year found that 88 percent of people between 18 and 22 believe websites should be legally required to delete all stored information about individuals.
Facebook could implement expiration dates. If it wanted to. It doesn’t, apparently.
Bad information, like bad news, has a greater impact, as any behavioral psychologist or journalist or PR rep will tell you. So a new industry has arisen to buried the bad news that can’t be actually eliminated. Companies like ReputationDefender flood the Web with positive or neutral information about their customers to rig Google search rankings, pushing the negative links to the bottom.
Whether Time chooses Julian, Mark (or even Sarah) as its emblem of 2010, the bigger story is that technology is rapidly moving us through numbered versions of the world. We’ve left the user-generated content world of web 2.0, and we’re being shoved into 3.0. Welcome to it.