We’ve been hearing a lot about privacy the last couple of years. And with the advent of Google Street View, GPS and location tracking, and growing social-media communities, we’re going to be hearing a lot more. What most folks don’t understand is that the concept of “privacy” is incredibly different depending on which side of the Atlantic you live. Yet in an increasingly globalized world, it’s becoming more and more important to acknowledge these divergent points of view.
Freedom of speech vs. personal privacy
Americans tend to be less concerned than Europeans. Privacy, after all, is not a clear constitutional right whereas freedom of speech is. Freedom of speech is actually the first article in the U.S. Bill of Rights. It’s not that Americans don’t value privacy, but they often view it as a tool to prevent government from overstepping its authority. This represents a fundamental difference in the way Americans and Europeans react to privacy issues.
In Europe, privacy is considered a basic human right. Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights spells it out, “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” To put things in perspective, freedom of speech first comes in Article 10.
Facebook and privacy
Much of the most recent discussion was triggered by Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg who in January claimed that “privacy is no longer a social norm” – this in the wake of a key change in the default privacy setting for his social platform. (the default value for profile content is now “public” rather than “private”)
Zuckerberg may be correct that the norm has changed. But we’re talking about a self-fulfilling prophecy. If privacy is no longer de rigueur, I think it’s because we stopped caring. And we should care – very much. Just because Zuckerberg (and others) are pushing for greater openness (and less privacy), that doesn’t make openness universally correct. Unfortunately, most of the users of Facebook won’t even know this has happened and certainly won’t think about the long-term consequences. Zuckerberg wins by default (pun intended). If we don’t show that we value our privacy, we will surely lose it forever.
If privacy is no longer de rigueur, I think it’s because we stopped caring. And we should care – very much.
“But everyone’s doing it”
Some years ago, Nokia, aware that people were sending SMSs while driving (which is illegal), started to experiment with a steering-wheel input device. Nokia’s design team argued, “Well, people are going to do this anyway, so we might as well make it easier.” Eventually, Nokia had the good sense to drop the project. Just because people do something dumb, doesn’t mean it should be officially sanctioned. If this was a viable argument, a murderer could theoretically defend himself with the following: “Well, people are going to die anyway. So I just helped things along.”
Changing the norm
As user-experience designers, I think it’s our duty to protect those who don’t know they need to protect themselves. We cannot allow individual companies, such as Google and Facebook, to dictate our privacy norms. We need a higher authority.
Where is the international organization that is going to help set impartial standards? The W3C? Their privacy page (last updated in 2007) merely helps people write privacy policies for websites – the legal blather few ever read. So where is our industry’s “International Privacy Charter”? Again, search for “privacy charter” and most of the information is 8-10 years old.
Where is our industry’s “International Privacy Charter”?
Why haven’t we written one? Maybe we should – and the sooner the better.