The True Price of Privacy: What Users Are Willing to Exchange for (Free) Content

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We all treasure our privacy, but just what exactly do we mean by that? In the United States, the right of privacy is written into the 1st, 4th, 5th and 14th amendments of the Constitution. These amendments mainly protect various aspects of our personal and private lives. There are also laws that protect access to private information, which the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) tries to enforce. However, on the limitless frontiers of the wild wild web, this statutory right of privacy can’t always be enforced either because existing laws don’t apply to this new medium or the medium is just evolving too quickly for the laws to keep up.

Add to this the fact that the web is global, and different countries have different laws on the books. And, the web is, well, a web. It’s confusing and still relatively new. Laws regulating cyberspace are still being created. Until the lawyers and politicians hammer out these new regulations, companies, individuals, and a number of other interested parties are in a tug of war over access to private information online.

Coupled with the unclear legal issues regarding our right of privacy online, is the ongoing confusion surrounding online communication itself. Every new form of interaction requires that we renegotiate the unwritten rules that regulate communication. We have to find new answers to such questions as who can communicate with whom, under what circumstances, and what can we communicate via this tool. Of course, as with any negotiation process, reaching a consensus takes time and perseverance. Right now, we’re smack in the middle of one of these renegotiation periods, and the parties involved have very different agendas.

The recent debate about the exchange and protection of private information online has been kicked into high gear with the arrival of social networking sites, behavioral targeting, and social ads on our media radar. Most of the fear comes from how certain sites use private information for commercial gain. Privacy means different things to different people, though, so what one person is willing to divulge for free content another may balk at.

You Say Tomato
Maybe, just maybe, what we’re experiencing is a good old-fashioned generation gap. Those who have grown up with easy (and early) access to oodles of high tech remote interaction tools just don’t see communication in the same way as those of us who met our fellow college freshmen for the first time in person, at orientation. If you’re not worried about sharing intimate information over the web publicly, why would you be threatened by companies collecting some of your personal information?

To test out this hypothesis, I emailed my web-savvy cousins—all in their 20s—for some help. Despite their relative youth, my cousins are surprisingly bad at returning emails, but 23-year-old Michelle did get back to me. Her responses to my questions do go some way toward supporting my very unscientific hypothesis. She admits to not really thinking about privacy online as much as she should. “I’m most aware of privacy issues because there are tons of horror stories about people losing jobs over pictures posted on Facebook or information they have put in their profile.” She knows companies collect her private information and tries to protect herself to some extent. She explained that, “as a general rule for myself, I try to only give out my personal information when it’s a reputable company that I know won’t sell my information to someone else. So, I only shop online at more well known sites where I’m sure my information is pretty safe.”

If Michelle represents her age group, then privacy issues aren’t really on the radar. Because the web has always been around, privacy isn’t even really an issue. You protect yourself as you see fit. Jeff Chester, founder and executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy concurs that there is a mental shift occurring regarding what is private and what is public. According to Chester, “younger people are willing to share more information about themselves—that’s a permanent and new part of the life we’re living increasingly on digital networks.” For Chester, the danger is not sharing information, but not knowing what is being done with all this data once it’s shared.

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