SXSW: Boyd Calls Out Google and Facebook for Abusing Users' Privacy

Researcher Danah Boyd brought fighting words to SXSW, where she delivered a well-received keynote Saturday on the interplay between private and public information online. She called out Google and Facebook for being cavalier with their users’ personal information by repurposing that which users intended for a smaller audience, implementing opt-out services that are public by default and changing settings without adequately informing users.

Boyd, who works with Microsoft Research and Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, based much of her assessments on interviews with social media users, many of them teens. She took the stance that “Just because something is publicly accessible doesn’t mean people want to be publicized.” Probably the most radical accusation she levied against technology companies was to declare that “Making something more public that is public is a violation of privacy.” By “making more public,” she meant aggregating users’ updates and making them searchable, as well as repurposing users’ information in a way they didn’t originally intend.

Though some may argue that anything volunteered online should be assumed to be public, Boyd maintained that privacy and publicity are not a binary — just as in the physical world, where you can say something in a public place and not expect it to leave the room.

“Security through obscurity is not as ridiculous as it might seem,” said Boyd. “The fact is most people are pretty obscure, even online.” However, she pointed out that the privilege of the freedom to portray her life online is not something that all people share — for instance, one girl she interviewed moved to another town to escape an abusive father, but then had her participation on Facebook exposed publicly when she accepted new default privacy settings.

Boyd criticized Google for its rollout of Buzz and Facebook for its privacy setting changes that pushed users to make their online participation more public by taking advantage of the fact that users tend to click through pop-up screens and accept default settings. “I don’t want to let conspiracy theories get in the way of my analysis, but I can’t help noticing that more and more technology companies are exposing people’s information publicly and then backpedaling a few weeks out,” she said.

In addition to being potentially dangerous, embarrassing or damaging, changing the rules around information makes users confused and unempowered, Boyd said. Regarding Google Buzz, which tried to approximate and make public people’s closest friends from their Gmail topics but ended up making some users convinced other aspects of their accounts were being made public, Boyd said, “Google managed to find the social equivalent of the uncanny valley,” explaining that, “They have a tremendous amount of information about users, but it wasn’t quite perfect.” She advocated the extension of real-world practices to the online world. “Technologists assume the most optimal solution is the best one, but this tends to ignore a whole bunch of social rituals that have value.”

Meanwhile, Google and Facebook weren’t given a chance to respond directly to Boyd’s keynote. But I did see representatives from both companies as well as others at the conference and speaking on panels throughout the day, where privacy on the social web was a frequent topic. I’ll post later on their side of the story.

For the GigaOM network’s complete SXSW coverage, check out this round-up.

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