TOWNSEND, Massachusetts – Oracle Corporation is the apparent winner in the $7.4 billion race (power walk?) to buy Sun Microsystems. I’m not a tech industry analyst, so I don’t have a lot to add to the conversations taking place over the financial or industrial implications, but the deal does bring to mind the now infamous words of former Sun CEO Scott McNealy, who said in 1999, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”
That quote has echoed down through the years since it was first uttered and it is either praised for its insight or decried with varying degrees of fervor depending upon your view on the subject. For my part, I think McNealy was spot-on – and dead wrong. You have zero privacy — enjoy it!
“Zero privacy” was McNealy’s way of pointing out that the then-nascent issue of the Internet’s impact on consumer privacy was merely accelerating the pace at which an individual’s personal information could be gathered, accessed, processed, and put to use by the organizations already using and abusing names, addresses, telephone numbers, and credit profiles. And he was absolutely right. Our personal information has always been part of the currency required to transact business, but the democratization of commerce in the Internet age opened a vast array of new opportunities to access and put that currency into circulation.
Yet pronouncements of privacy’s death, it turns out, have been hoist by their own digital petard. That same democratization has given individuals – you and me – more control over that information and more say in the privacy of our personal information.
I am a big believer in the marketplace of ideas and have full confidence that, as a whole, regular folks are smart enough to make their own good decisions. Others disagree, and have made it their life’s purpose to urge state and federal governments to layer more and more legislation on top of an already byzantine regulatory landscape that seems to have only one purpose: protecting people from themselves. Thanks, but I like to make my own decisions.
Crusaders like the Center for Digital Democracy and its director Jeff Chester seem to never be satisfied until their vision of how the world should be has been foist upon an ignorant and ungrateful nation. Their weapons – volume and hysteria – are brandished against corporate American in the mistaken belief that there is evil lurking behind every successful business plan.
The Federal Trade Commission recently issued a repudiation of the demands of overzealous privacy advocates like Chester when it allowed the online advertising industry to self-regulate rather than issue a set of rules that would likely be obsoleted by the inexorable march of innovation by the time the rules were ratified. The guidelines, drafted under the Bush Administration and issued by the FTC this past February, were delivered with a stern warning when Commissioner Jon Leibowitz said, “This could be the last clear chance to show that self-regulation can – and will – effectively protect consumers’ privacy in a dynamic online marketplace.”
Companies like Google and Microsoft, popular targets for the advocates’ ire, have been pretty good citizens in spite of what has been implied. But under the Obama administration Liebowitz’s lingering threat might be enough to keep companies from taking too many chances. Taking chances is what innovation is all about – it’s in the DNA of many tech companies – so it’s anyone’s guess who wins this fight.
But a telling story can be found in the success of social networking utilities like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. These companies are real time experiments exploring public sentiments over privacy in theory and privacy in practice. And they bear powerful witness – Facebook has more users than some nations do citizens – to the fact that people are more than comfortable baring their souls online to engage friends, family, colleagues, and even total strangers who may share common interests. (Disclosure: Spot-on’s ad service builds and sells Facebook applications but I’m not part of that aspect of the business).
I consider the success and popularity of Facebook as the best evidence that privacy is alive and well because of the Internet. In spite of the occasional hiccup (such as the network’s now-abandoned Beacon advertising kerfuffle), Facebook’s popularity continues to soar, in large part because of the company’s response to public opinion. If Facebook demonstrated a tin ear to its more than 200 million subscribers, they’d go elsewhere.
These sites are tools that encourage the public to be anything but private in front of millions of total strangers – and the public can’t get on board fast enough. Some will say this phenomenon is driven by our ego-centric, celebrity-driven culture, but human beings are largely social beings. We have an inherent need to associate with others and belong to communities, and as long as we believe we have a measure of control over those communities, we’re happy to be seen.
That doesn’t mean that people will always make wise decisions, but where personal liberty reigns there also exists risk. And there’s the ever present contradiction of individual habits that no amount of legislation will ever overcome. As personal security expert Robert Siciliano recently told me, “While many citizens scream against Big Brother and corporate America abusing their trust, many will give up all their privacy for ten percent off a new pair of shoes.”
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Keeping pace with the times, I am now on Twitter posting thoughts on faith, politics, privacy, and the occasional random observation or comment. Look me up and follow me as spinzo.
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