The privacy bargain

Stephen Bell of Computerworld recently outlined his views on the privacy bargain:

Another view, which I find more persuasive, is that when we make use of a service like Facebook, we enter a commercial bargain. Something very useful is provided to us free of charge and in exchange we cede something of our private selves to the providers, to be sold for whatever they can earn.

This is also my view, as I have written about here. Interestingly, Stephen got the view of the Privacy Commissioner:

I put this to Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff. She suggests the bargain accepters are not as numerous as I believe, and in the wake of the Facebook and Google embarrassments, privacy champions are becoming a majority.

Yet what is happening is that companies such as Facebook and Google – who arguably stand to lose the most from pushing the privacy envelope a bridge too far – are themselves becoming the leading “privacy champions”, and shaping the future of privacy expectations and regulation at the same time. For example, Google has announced it will be undertaking biennial “independent privacy reviews to keep it on the straight and narrow”.

PR stunt? Window-dressing? Possibly, though assuming not then I think it is a very good idea. But the size and reach of Google means any practical changes will affect users around the world, and shift the goalposts of expectations and norms, years in advance of any regulation. And in the meantime, users will continue to flood to social networks and other systems – many of whom will never have known a world with any different processes or expectations of privacy.

How, then, might Government-imposed regulation be seen? Stephen sums it up very well:

There is a risk that the Privacy Commissioner and her staff might then be seen as the villains, keeping us from using new technology to smooth our businesses and lives because of their legalistic obsession with an abstract value.

The evidence to hand shows the privacy bargain has been well and truly been accepted, for better or for worse. The challenge for any regulation is to be seen as adding value (for citizens) to these bargains, not getting in the way of willing parties.