Cocktail Crossfire: Is Online Privacy Really That Big a Deal?

On Thursday, the White House pulled back the curtain on its "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights," a presidential attempt to clamp down on the misuse of online user data.

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On Thursday, the White House pulled back the curtain on its "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights," a presidential attempt to clamp down on the misuse of online user data. The document itself and the government's broader initiative to better monitor what's happening online will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers on both sides of the issue. Privacy is a thing -- it's in the original Bill of Rights after all! -- but it's a complicated thing. What really matters here? Let's discuss.

Less privacy can lead to a richer user experience. This is not just Facebook propaganda. As tired as the phrase now sounds, the future of the Web is social, and it's already here. Do you like your friends? Then you'll probably like what they get up to on all the Internet websites and mobile apps and whatnot. Opening up your privacy settings and sharing more of what you're doing can make it not only easier to connect with friends online but also more fun!
Take Spotify, for example. My esteemed colleague on the other side of this debate works out of our DC headquarters whereas I'm in New York. So we never get to listen to the same jams. I tried sending her a song just a minute ago, but she didn't get it because she had all of her privacy settings cranked up. That's not fun. Had she connected her Spotify account to Facebook we could be collaborating on The Atlantic Wire playlists and DJing the office party, from hundreds of miles apart. That is fun. It's debatable whether or not apps like Spotify should restrict certain features based on privacy settings, but for now, it feels like opening yourself up to the full benefits of the social Web is the thing to do. What's the worst thing that can happen if you let all of your friends see what you're listening to? This.
Surveillance is scary, but it's going to happen whether we like it or not. Now, I'm not a total yeasayer when it comes to the Zuckerberg-style "Privacy Is Over" mode of thinking. Privacy is actually a very important issue to me. When I'm walking around the city, I'm okay offering up my location to Foursquare with a check-in, as long as the company throws some benefits (like a free drink or three) my way. I am not okay with unknowingly being a blinking dot on some screen at the National Security Agency. But I probably am. At the very least, they're probably reading my email -- and yours, too. This is all presumably in the name of national security, and as much as I like my alone, please-do-not-surveil-me time, it seems sorta sensible that I might have to sacrifice some of my civil liberties so that the Feds can prevent bad things from happening to America.
That said, it seems like people often get confused with the Orwellian notion of government surveillance and the drawbacks of giving away your online data so that for-profit companies can sell it to advertisers. As the title suggests, Obama's new Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights is focused on the commercial side of things. If somebody else is making money off of your data, of course you should be able to control how much of that data you give them. Am I thrilled that Google reads the content of my emails in Gmail? Nope. That's why I recently set up a private email that takes me out of their ecosystem. And you can too!
Easy-to-understand privacy controls are essential. Duh.
Adam Clark Estes

Ever heard of over-sharing? I am all about Internet socializing, but I want to choose how social I get to be. The way things are going that choice no longer exists. Like, the Spotify-Facebook frictionless sharing set-up. Not everyone wants to share their song choices all day, every day, all the time. It can be embarrassing, as my colleague, who was outed for liking Justin Bieber on public radio via his Facebook-Spotify situation, knows. And, I just don't want to do it.

But Facebook and Spotify have made it hard not to want to join the fun. So, with this very fear, I tentatively synced my  two accounts, clicking all the right things to ensure private listening -- an option Spotify only gave users after an uproar. Apparently the precautions did not work, as I received the following Facebook notification this afternoon.

Exactly what I did not want, especially because I had listened to this song a bunch of times in a row, followed by this and then this. Why not just give users the choice? Some might like sharing it all, why default to constant sharing all the time? Some Internet time is private.

"Assume everything is shared" doesn't make surveillance okay. Should we also assume the government is always watching us? No thanks. One can get a little too-used to that mentality, offering up bits of information without thinking twice. And things shared on the Internet are permanent and public. As we Internet beings know, anything Googleable is fair game. The Internet has put together entire profiles of human beings solely based on Google, Facebook and Twitter. A little protection would be nice.

Who in their right mind is anti-privacy? That's all.

— Rebecca Greenfield 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.