[Air-L] Privacy Buzz

Jean Burgess je.burgess at qut.edu.au
Tue Feb 16 00:44:24 PST 2010

Mark, Christian and list members,

Christian said:
> Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently remarked about Internet privacy: "If
> you have something that you do not want anyone to know, maybe you should
> not be doing it in the first place², which points towards a lack of
> understanding of the online surveillance threat and privacy issues.

Absolutely, and there is something more to this jaw-droppingly blasé
statement as well. I don't think it's *only* a result of Google's desire to
facilitate and track and cross-aggregate everything everyone does on the
internet ever (which is clearly the manifest destiny of Google, and several

We also had this today in the WSJ:

'After taking steps to stem the public backlash against its
social-networking service Buzz, Google Inc. is planning further updates and
considering changing how it tests new Buzz features.
 Google product manager Todd Jackson said in an interview Monday that the
number of people initially uncomfortable with the service underscored that
the company's approach of testing Buzz among its employees hasn't been

 "Getting feedback from 20,000 Googlers isn't quite the same as letting
Gmail users play with Buzz in the wild," Mr. Jackson said. "We needed to
launch to the public and get feedback from users." '

(Thanks to Michael Zimmer for tweeting the link)

As various commenters have pointed out elsewhere, Google's apparent "lack of
understanding" of the threats to privacy has an identity politics as well.
At least in my head (and tell me if I'm crazy), the ideal, undifferentiated
internet user says: "I mean, I live my life online and it's fine. I don't
care who knows which Starbucks I'm using my Blackberry at or which of my
business contacts I compare Geek 2.0 conferences with or what Business 2.0
book I'm buying." All very obvious - assumed, unrecognised privilege that
goes with a certain class position, geographically myopic worldview despite
the desire for global colonisation, etc.

But this assumption of a universal 'we'; the complete carelessness about the
idea that public exposure can do harm; the shrugging off of the social
complexity of social media, and so on, also have a gender politics.  In some
of the *critique* of Googlebookspacetube, so does a similar shrugging off of
the messy mix of pleasure, affinity, and risk of social media participation;
and indeed the insistent bracketing off of concrete lived experiences, so we
can get at the main game: Economics. The World. History. Everything.

But back to Buzz. Most obviously, as the widely circulated (but now
password-protected) "F**k You, Google" blog post on the Fugitivus blog so
clearly demonstrated, even in the affluent West, if you have ever had a
stalker, an abusive ex- or current partner, or live in a community/family
where it might not be safe to be outed as gay, there are plenty of things
you might not want people to know you're saying or doing. It doesn't mean
you "should stop doing them" - or saying them - on the Internet.

What would a social media platform look like if it listened carefully from
the beginning to what users are actually doing with the platform -
collectively constructing a wide and often overlapping range of uses,
communities, etc., including a nuanced set of publicity/privacy settings.
What if the provider provided the tools to do that, and didn't come crashing
in in the middle of the night to redesign everything and randomly release
'features' that have no obvious relationship to the practices of users?

To finish by returning to the subject of business if not capital-E

I understand that there is actually no business case for blanket privacy in
the free-to-use, advertising-supported business model that drives Google,
Facebook, and Twitter (indirectly), but I'm not sure there isn't a business
model (where "business model" might or might not include a profit motive)
that could work quite well and treat user communities with more respect -
including respect for the knowledge and expertise they have developed
through their work as users. I still think Flickr had it more or less right
in some ways (especially in the areas of privacy settings and community
governance) - but theirs is a Freemium business model (where you have a
choice of a fairly full-featured free account, or a paid 'power' account).

I genuinely mean this as a devil's advocate question: given the apparent
helplessness of users in a free-to-use model, are we better off as customers
than we are as users? How might we ask to be addressed as citizens instead,
or as well?

OK, they aren't big questions to end with or anything...



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