Online privacy: digitally exposed

The growing use of online social networking, brings a host of new concerns, as life off and online merge.

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Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg may well champion greater personal transparency, but he is not subject to the many externalities of such scrutiny which can result in life-destroying actions, such as unemployment or in the most horrific cases, death [Reuters]

In January 2010, an Irish teenager named Phoebe Prince, whose family had recently settled in the United States, took her own life after months of relentless bullying, both online and off. Nine students were charged on various accounts for the harassment that lead to Prince’s suicide, and as a result, the state of Massachusetts has enacted a new bill to deal with online and offline bullying.
Last month, a young man named Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate secretly videotaped then broadcast live a homosexual encounter involving the young man. Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Ravi’s friend Molly Wei have been charged with invasion of privacy.

In the wake of Clementi’s death, a number of groups popped up on Facebook and other social networking sites. There were some started by friends in memory of Clementi, and some condemning Ravi and Wei. There was also plenty of nastiness, to which Facebook responded by partnering with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) to monitor and promptly remove hate speech on the platform.

But while initiatives like the Facebook-GLAAD partnership are surely a step in the right direction they are, in a sense, just a bandage on a broader problem, a problem which some are calling a lack of ‘digital citizenship.’

The Internet: A ‘Free For All’

For young people – digital natives – the Internet can be a confusing place. Introduced to the Internet at a young age, digital natives have grown up accustomed to sharing their daily lives with the virtual world, from what they ate for breakfast to where they are at any given time. This shift in norms is undeniably confusing to many adults, but may also be so for young people, many of whom see the Internet as lawless.

In an NPR report on the subject, Hina Khaliq, a student from Rutgers, the university attended by Clementi, claimed that the rules of the Internet were ‘unclear’: “There’s no guidelines set down for us when we start using the Internet at any early age – or any age – so I think it’s a free-for-all.”

A number of scholars see this as an opportunity for education and have urged for better teaching, in schools, of digital citizenship. Amongst them is my colleague John Palfrey who, in the same report, called it an “all-hands-on-deck kind of issue,” urging adults to reach out to young people. The findings of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, a group tasked with creating a safer environment for youth online, and of which Palfrey is the Director, similarly pushed for better education, both by parents and educators of all kinds.

Mixed Messages

Though the dangers of online over-sharing are evidentiary, young people are being hit by a myriad of mixed messages over what is and isn’t acceptable to share publicly. In a culture of reality television, where everyone is a celebrity, it’s no surprise that young people are confused. Such mixed messages become especially clear when it comes to social networking.

Take Facebook, for example. In his recent book, The Facebook Effect, David Kirkpatrick refers to the concept of radical transparency, arguing that founder Mark Zuckerberg believes that people will be better off by making themselves more transparent.  Problematically, Zuckerberg’s position is one of privilege; Zuckerberg has no boss to answer to, he can post virtually anything online without fear of retribution. For the average user, however, the risks are palpable.

The damage done by exposing too much online is by no means limited to what we can do to one another, such as in the case of Clementi or, for example, the more innocuous posting of risqué vacation photos. In fact, individual risk is perhaps higher – at least statistically speaking. Just ask any blogger who’s been fired for writing about the workplace or tracked down by creditors because of information they put online.

Users of social networking sites may also lack awareness of how their data is being used. A just-released Wall Street Journal investigation found that most of the popular applications on Facebook have been transmitting identifying information (such as users’ names or the names of their Facebook friends) to advertising and Internet tracking companies, even if a user’s profile was set to the strictest privacy settings. And this isn’t the first time Facebook has exposed its users in such a manner: earlier this year, the company modified its default privacy settings in a way that exposed more user information, though after ensuing protests, the company changed the settings more favorably.

All roads lead to better education

So, short of shutting down the Internet (a prospect unlikely even in the most repressive of nations), what is to be done to protect the privacy of individuals online? Though companies have a responsibility to protect their users’ data, the responsibility ultimately falls on individuals to be smart about what kind of information they’re putting about themselves – and others – online.
Of course, such knowledge doesn’t materialize from thin air, which is where education comes in. It is imperative that we teach young people not just about personal safety online, but also about digital literacy in every sense of the term, from the ability to discern good research resources to the responsibilities of digital citizens to their fellow netizens.

This also means recognizing that good citizenship begins offline. Just like the Internet can be a tool for positive change, so can it be a tool that enables cyberbullying and harassment. There is no denying the role the Internet played in the suicides of Clementi and Prince. It is also likely that, in the absence of the Internet, their harassers would still have found a way to cause them harm.

In the end, education is the key, and the responsibility is on all of us – not just teachers, not just parents, but all of us – to instill a strong sense of citizenship in the next generation.

Jillian York is a writer, blogger, and activist based in Boston. She works at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Centre for Internet & Society and is involved with Global Voices Online.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.