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Facing Up to the Generational Privacy Divide

Appeared in the Toronto Star on October 31, 2010 as Facing Up to the Generational Privacy Divide

Last week hundreds of privacy regulators, corporate officers, and activists gathered in Jerusalem, Israel for the annual Data Protection and Privacy Commissioner Conference. The conference theme focused on the perception of a growing privacy divide between generations, with older and younger demographics seemingly adopting sharply different views on the importance of privacy.  

Many acknowledged that longstanding privacy norms are being increasingly challenged by the massive popularity of social networks that encourage users to share information that in a previous generation would have never been made publicly available for all the world to see.  Moreover, rapid technological change and the continuous evolution of online sites and services create enormous difficulty for regulators unaccustomed to moving at Internet speed.

Given these changes, the conference asked participants to question whether privacy norms are at a breaking point with conventional laws, regulations, and principles rendered irrelevant in the face of the generational and technological shift.

The response from many participants – both privacy experts and those studying online youth – was that privacy remains an important value. Recent studies in the United States and New Zealand both found that people want it all: robust, interactive social networks and privacy protection.   

Experts pointed to two explanations to reconcile the desire to be openly online and maintain privacy.  First, they noted that online social networks are merely social spaces that replicate what we commonly do socially offline including chatting with friends, gossiping with co-workers, and connecting with family.  In the offline world, these activities rarely raise privacy concerns since sharing photos or discussing recent activities is not perceived to be a privacy issue.  Once those activities move online, the privacy implications can become dramatically different.

Bringing offline social activities to the online environment raise a host of issues, including the notion of “collapsed context.” In the offline world, we interact with many different groups, such as friends, family, and co-workers, with conversations and information sharing that differs for each.  In online social networks, the context for those different conversations is collapsed into a single space. Moreover, the information from online social networks never disappears and the context for a photograph, video or conversation from years earlier is often lost.

Second, privacy experts argued that social media companies make it too difficult for users to protect their privacy by establishing open privacy settings as the default. Facebook and other social media sites give users the ability to adjust those settings, yet over the past few years the default settings have steadily pushed users toward greater openness leaving hundreds of millions of users with the open privacy settings that Facebook selected for them.

Pursuing the twin goals of greater openness and protecting personal privacy may seem like an impossibility, but at least three strategies to address both desires emerged from the discussions.  First, there is a need to focus on default settings by ensuring that they err on the side of greater privacy.  Users should be free to make their information as openly available as they wish, but guarding against inadvertently exposing a photo, video, or embarrassing comment requires default settings that enshrine privacy as the norm.

Second, education is needed on the implications of privacy, social networks, and sharing information online.  Online social network offer tremendous opportunities to mirror and extend our offline networks, yet many users have yet to fully grapple with differences and the potential implications.

Third, there is still a role for regulation and the law.  Although it will invariably lag behind the rapid pace of technology, it is important for companies to understand the legal limits on collecting, using, and disclosing personal information and for users to know that the law stands ready to assist them if those rules are violated.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

One Comment

  1. Our freedom
    With “cookies” that cannot be destroyed, and kids’ websites using them the most, responsible parents should teach their children to only use pseudonyms, like their nicknames when online AND use anonymizing services. Our government recommends that we all use anonymizing services here: (“Surf anonymously by using third party software that hides your real IP address.”) In upholding the right to anonymity online, the U.S. Supreme Court said “our society accords greater weight to the value of free speech than to the dangers of its misuse.” (Abrams v. United States)
    The danger is that in passing stupid laws like C-32 we set ourselves up for a time when most copyright infringement is done anonymously, and then we will be told that we have to outlaw these same anonymizing services which we now recognize as essential for our freedom.