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To Share or Not to Share? Social Networking and Privacy

UPDATED: April 27, 2010

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Under U.S. law, a person doesn’t retain privacy rights when information becomes public. That seems simple enough, but in the exploding world of social networking, where users are urged to share information about themselves with their friends, the issue of privacy has become far more complicated.

To understand why, some background is needed. Using the Internet as a global medium for sharing personal news and gossip is relatively new. Although not the first website of its kind, social networking got a jumpstart when a group of Harvard students who wanted a way to keep in touch founded Facebook in 2004.

Their once collect-only network grew to include other areas and age groups, spreading throughout America and other countries so rapidly that Facebook now reports it has more than 400 million active users, 70 percent of them outside the United States. On this network alone, some 5 billion pieces of content, everything from web links to photos, are shared and about 60 million updates are posted every day. The typical user spends about 55 minutes a day on the site.

And that’s just on Facebook. Those figures don’t include fast-growing Twitter, pioneer MySpace, or any of the other hundreds of social networks now lurking on the Web. (Wikipedia offers a list of all social networking sites, though this area changes so rapidly as sites open and close, the list may not always be up to date.)

A Clash of Competing Goals

The aim of social networking is to encourage users to share information about themselves, their lives, their jobs, their interests, and their goals. To do this, networks provide users with a way to restrict the information that gets shared with a wide audience. Research published by the Pew Institute for the Internet and American Live showed that about 60 percent of adults restrict access to their online profiles.

The paradox, of course, is that if too many users don’t want to share information about themselves, the social networking industry will suffer. Less traffic means that the sites won’t be as attractive to advertisers and other businesses that bring in money.

Most networks have restrictive controls on sites to protect younger users from intrusive attention, and most networks have developed privacy controls so users can decide what other users can see, and which users can see it.

With Increased Transparency Comes Worries Over Privacy

But mindful of their business interests, most social networks emphasize transparency and sharing information, and don’t say much about privacy. An analysis of 45 sites by Cambridge University researchers showed that many did not make it easy to find their privacy statements. This was perhaps because, researchers speculated, the sites feared that drawing attention to the issue would discourage information sharing even when controls were available.

Privacy advocates complain about the push for more sharing which, in turn, will increase traffic on the sites. In particular, they object to a move by Facebook to make more individual data available by default to anyone with Internet access. Before the change, only names and the network within Facebook they belonged to were widely available.

According to news reports, users who worry about their loss of privacy are beginning to opt out of networks. Some say they also want to reclaim the time spent networking. If that trend grows, the privacy issue disappears. But if the social networking phenomenon continues to spread, as seems to be happening with more sophisticated phone capabilities, and people become more wary about what they want to share, and with whom they want to share it, the clash between privacy and social networking is only going to escalate.

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