Is Online Privacy a Generational Issue?

Geek Culture

[This is a guest post by Heather West, Policy Analyst at the Center for Democracy & Technology]

It seems like every time I talk to people about privacy, there’s a feeling that younger users of online tools simply don’t care about the issue. Often, I am asked why privacy advocates like CDT push government and industry to protect privacy more robustly- when “no one cares”? In short, people seem to be asserting that digital natives like myself do not value privacy online. While this point is oft repeated, I think that this argument is flawed, and does not address the subtleties of privacy in the cloud, social networks, and other new online technologies. Simply put, these technologies are giving digital natives (really, all users) greater control over their information – and we use it.

Digital immigrants tend to think about privacy as the ability to conceal information from others. Digital natives instead share information within certain contexts, and with granular privacy controls on that information. And according to a new study on behavioral advertising, it is precisely the 18-24 year old age bracket that cares most about how information is used to make decisions about them to deliver news, advertisements, or discounts. In fact, one of the survey’s authors told the New York Times that it’s likely that young adults care more about their privacy and how companies use their information than expected.

Turow, Joseph, King, Jennifer, Hoofnagle, Chris Jay, Bleakley, Amy and Hennessy, Michael, Americans Reject Tailored Advertising and Three Activities that Enable It (September 29, 2009). Available at SSRN:, Joseph, King, Jennifer, Hoofnagle, Chris Jay, Bleakley, Amy and Hennessy, Michael, Americans Reject Tailored Advertising and Three Activities that Enable It (September 29, 2009). Available at SSRN:

Turow, Joseph, King, Jennifer, Hoofnagle, Chris Jay, Bleakley, Amy and Hennessy, Michael, Americans Reject Tailored Advertising and Three Activities that Enable It (September 29, 2009). Available at SSRN:

While detractors of social media often lament the amount of information that is posted online, social networks and other venues for sharing content with friends and family continue to grow and innovate at a rapid pace. As these services evolve, the privacy protections that they offer also evolve- and according to Pew, 66% of teens use these privacy controls to limit access to their profile . Gone are the days where my friends could see everything I posted on my Facebook page. Now, I am given the opportunity to choose not only what content is public, but who has access to that content. This includes privacy control for photo albums, status updates, and personal information. Truth be told, I am much less comfortable with social sites that do not give me this level of freedom. We have reached the era where digital natives now expect this level of control over their personal information. As they found in the Pew study, many teens and certainly most young adults make thoughtful decisions about what information to share, and in what context.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, both teens and adults actively manage their information online – 60% of adults and 66% of teens restrict access to information in their profile. According to the Pew study, only 6% of teens make their first and last name publicly accessible on social networks- a very telling statistic. We want our cake, and we want to eat it too- we want to share our content online, and we want to control who we share it with.

Rather than an all-or-nothing public or private paradigm, we expect to be able to choose levels of privacy and levels of exposure to the public. Most teens restrict access to their online profiles and do not think that sharing their information with a specific set of people means that the information is in the public domain. This allows them to both gain the benefits of sharing and communicating online, but also protecting their privacy and remain empowered in their choices about their own information.

These expectations of granular control over information, both in the Pew studies on privacy controls and the more recent study on tailored content and advertising, seem to reflect the expectations of the Fair Information Practices (FIPs) that form the basis of most privacy law. These FIPs, first developed in 1973, represent a simple set of ideas about how information is used:

– People must be able to find out what information about them is being kept, and how it is being used, and people should be able to correct information about them (69% of those surveyed on tailored content thought that they should have the legal right to know what websites know about them, and 92% think that users should have the right to ask websites to delete their profile)

– The organization keeping the record must protect the information from misuse and do it’s best to make sure that the information is accurate, and must give people a way to correct errors in their records

– There should not be secret collections of information, since you can’t correct it

– Information about someone should not be used for a purpose other than the one it was collected without that person’s consent

While it’s not likely that your average teen or young adult online is well-versed in FIPs, the trends and data show a natural inclination towards wanting more user control over their privacy settings and information on Web sites. Though the Fair Information Practices were developed more than 30 years ago, they are not forgotten. The fact that younger social media users value the core principles of FIPs in how their information can be captured or shown to third-parties, companies and other users, serves as strong evidence that government agencies should continue to bend over backwards to protect user privacy in these mediums. Younger users may not be able to cite specific privacy laws and standards off the top of their heads, but they have a firm grasp of what they do want control over when it comes to their Internet usage and an expectation that these controls are not a privilege, but a right as digital natives.

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