Defining privacy across generations is not a straightforward task. The other day, President Obama gave a speech urging America's students to stay in school. Prior to that speech, he took questions from a group of students here in Virginia. One of the questions was about advice he had for them on career paths. He urged them to be to be careful about what they post on Facebook, because someone will bring it up later and use it against them. First of all, this is pretty standard advice -- not particularly original as these things go. But, more fundamentally, I think it's a bit wrongly-aimed.
This is all about giving people what my friend Esther Dyson has called a “statute of limitations on stupidity.” If we don’t all start cutting each other more slack in this increasingly transparent (often by our own choice) society, we’ll only allow drones into positions of authority. Now that’s really scary.Gillmor's last paragraph there might be a tad optimistic. But I do think that conceptions of privacy, not to mention appropriateness, change over time. I usually find discussions of how cavalier the KidsTheseDays[tm] are about privacy to be woefully naive. Usually what the complainer is saying is that Kids don't have the same notions of privacy and decorum that the complainer has. I think that intergenerational privacy debates come in two flavors, and too often only one aspect is considered. The one aspect that gets all the attention is the one that goes: "Hey, back when I was 19, I never would have exposed [X] to the world! Kids today do it all the time. Ergo, they care less about privacy than I do." There are a fair number of flaws in that style of complaint, not least of which is the fact that the Kids may very well simply consider different things "private."
We’re making progress, probably more than Obama gives us credit for. Recall that it was impossible for a Catholic to be president, until John F. Kennedy was elected. It was impossible for a divorced person to be elected until Ronald Reagan won. It was impossible for a former pot smoker to be president until Bill Clinton (who bizarrely claimed not to have inhaled) got elected. And so on.
[...] In the foreseeable future, we’ll elect a president who had blog or Facebook wall or MySpace page when she was a teenager and college student. By the standards of today she’ll be utterly disqualified for any serious political job. But because we’ll have grown as a society, not just more tolerant of flaws but understanding that we all have feet of clay in some respect, we’ll elect her anyway, because we’ll realize that the person she became — and how that happened — is what counts.
But I think there's a subtler issue at play that's often ignored when it comes to inter-generational privacy considerations. It can be a challenge to talk about privacy in any definitional sense without raising the notion of harm. In other words, an act is more likely to be considered a privacy violation if it causes harm of some sort or has the potential to cause harm. Otherwise, an act may be a nuisance, but without the threat of harm may not be considered a privacy violation. Contrast, for example, a health insurance company collecting a grocery receipts vs. the local elementary school doing so in order to demo proofs of purchase for some sort of fundraising contest. (Both of these are fabricated examples, but should convey the idea.) In both cases the act -- collection of grocery receipts -- is the same. But one is generally considered a potential privacy violation and other is not (or is at least not seen to be as extreme).
Understanding privacy and people's conceptions means understanding the potential for harm. Going back to Gillmor's points earlier -- the reason President Obama is squeamish about Facebook is because the potential for harm today is still quite high. But as Gillmor points out, that simply has to change. And as it becomes less likely that there will be harmful repercussions based on something you posted as a freshman in college, then such behavior becomes less fraught from a privacy perspective as well.
Similarly, and to get to that subtler intergenerational issue I mentioned earlier, the risks in the world that my mother grew up in were different than the risks in the world that her mother grew up in. And both are different from the risks that i deal with. Thus, our conceptions of what can harm us are different. And thus, I would argue, our notions of what need to be kept private are different as well. My great-grandmother, for example, refused to tell anyone ever who she voted for. She was an immigrant (and, obviously, a woman) and my sense was that she considered the franchise a sacred duty. You don't mess around with the sacred by talking about it casually.
Three generations later I am reasonably comfortable that women will retain the right to vote and I live in a world where politicians' foibles, frailties, and flaws are all too evident. I'm typically perfectly comfortable discussing the merits and demerits of various would-be public servants and which I consider to be the lesser evil when it comes to the ballot box. On the other hand, my great-grandmother never had to worry about keeping 50 zillion different passwords "secret" and she didn't have to be particularly circumspect about her parenting choices and philosophy, since the MommyWars were not in full-blown multi-media glory back in her day.
Going forward, I expect to cringe about some of the things my son does (or doesn't do) with regard to privacy. But the world he will inhabit as an adult will be different from this one. The risks will be different. Privacy is a deeply-contextual concept. When it comes to individual and interpersonal behaviors, it is not fair to assume that someone doesn't care about "privacy" simply because their risk calculations are different from yours. Nor is it appropriate, to my mind, to project the risk environment of 2009 onto KidsTheseDays wondering about career management. Obama's a smart guy, but his answer to those kids was trite and not particularly thoughtful.