As the Internet figures so strongly in the lives of billions, issues of privacy are increasingly important. This usually takes the form of concerns for protection, in that users are fearful of how others may intrude on their “real” lives, and/or become aggressive to them because of the user’s exposure on the Internet. Equally important, however, is how being online may be changing actual ideas of privacy itself. More exactly, concerns may be misplaced because the majority of users are willingly surrendering privacy. This is likely due to the massive force of the Internet as so advantageous, less value is attached to protecting personal identity. In plain terms, as everyone is engaging in this arena, barriers are seen as pointless and traditional ideas of what privacy means do not apply. As the following will reveal, Internet users commonly discard their own privacy because the universal presence of the Internet has altered or eliminated the meaning of the concept.
Today, smart phones are everywhere, and the cell phone is usually linked to the Internet. The convenience of this translates to a major shift in behavior; users in all public spaces, from parks to trains and planes, engage in private communication and Internet activities with strangers very near to them. They write emails and texts which can be seen by the stranger next to them, and they access web sites in ways just as vulnerable. Much study has been done on this factor of how the Internet changes ideas of public space, yet it seems there are no conclusions, and simply because the virtual quality of the Internet changes all existing paradigms regarding what is personal and what is public (Trepte, Reinecke, 2011, p. 114). Put another way, the mere ability to connect online is so compelling, users insist on engaging in it no matter their literal circumstances, and this completely blurs the lines between public and private space.
This transition of the private into the public, then, points to an interesting likelihood. Namely, privacy is devalued, or is seen as of lesser import than the power to communicate and conduct Internet activity. This creates varying consequences; many feel that public usage of the Internet, aside from cafes and spaces intended for it, is intrusive in that it imposes social demands on others. They must make efforts, in a sense, to ignore the conversations or private activity. At the same time, and importantly, the public use of the Internet implicitly carries a conflicted message. It asserts that the user does not care who may be observing or hearing, yet it also relies to some extent on traditional boundaries of respect for privacy. Whatever the reactions or perceptions, however, one element seems clear; those engaged in the Internet in public spaces have essentially chosen to disregard their own privacy. This must mean that they view privacy differently, and likely in a way not attaching great value to it.
The Public in the “Private”
Generally speaking, there are few activities people do not engage in online when within private spaces, from purchases to seeking romance. This then adds a strange dimension to the Internet, in that, in virtual terms, the privacy itself is both determined by the user and largely surrendered by them. On one level, there are ways in which identity may be concealed; real names may not be used and fictitious identities may be presented. Then, the user may choose to avoid any sacrifice of privacy and not engage in any sites in which identity is a factor. At the same time, however, the bulk of the Internet demands some type of presence, and people tend to comply with their real ones. This is evident in the immense popularity of social media. Here, users seem to believe they are interacting with others in a way simultaneously private and public. They engage virtually but are free to command exactly what they reveal. The “invisibility” factor of the Internet then would appear to protect their actual privacy.
It is all the more interesting, then, to note how recent issues with Facebook’s privacy policies indicate extreme concerns. Recent research points to increasing numbers of younger users insisting on protections, in terms of both personal contacts and personal information shared, or are turning to other networks (Cross, 2011, p. 106). The question then arises, however, of how realistic such demands are. In plain terms, users must be aware to some extent that logging on to any site entails a sacrifice of privacy. Moreover, it seems unreasonable to expect that any site based on social interaction should be concerned with active efforts to protect users’ privacy, when the users clearly surrender this in their voluntary interactions. Certainly, giving away specific information may not be justified. When users complain that their social posts are shared without their consent, however, it appears that they are refusing to take responsibility for their own choices. They are, in effect, unwilling or unable to accept that there is an inherent surrender of privacy in Internet activity of this kind. That surrender then points to a lack of understanding as to what privacy is, or an idea of it both unrealistic and removed from traditional definitions.
Governments are continually seeking ways to protect privacy on the Internet, through new laws and policies based on this evolving technology and its enormous impact (Trepte, Reinecke, 2011, p. 115). Even as this goes on, however, there remains the fact that the same users who insist on privacy protection have actually redefined privacy through sacrificing it to the Internet. Moreover, the new definition is inherently so weakened, it hardly qualifies as “privacy.” Internet users today actually discard their own privacy because universal usage of the Internet has altered, or even destroyed, the meaning of the concept.
- Cross, M. (2011). Bloggerati, Twitterati: How Blogs and Twitter are Transforming Popular Culture. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
- Trepte, S., & Reinecke, L. (2011). Privacy Online: Perspectives on Privacy and Self- Disclosure in the Social Web. New York: Springer.