Sun MicroSystem CEO Scott McNealy famously said, “privacy is dead, deal with it.” Apparently, a lot of people are having trouble dealing with it. Facebook and its advertising partners were sued for millions of dollars because they automatically published began monitoring and publishing what Facebook users were doing on sites like Blockbuster.com and Zappos.com. This resulted in a man’s wife finding out about his surprise jewelry purchase. Fortunately, it was for her. But still, he’s having trouble getting over it. And so he and some other folks sued Facebook in a class action suit that recently settled. Facebook denies that it did anything wrong, but they were sued under a federal statute that makes it illegal to reveal video rental information (a law that was passed after Judge Robert Bork’s failed nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, which involved revelations about his rental choices).
More recently, Google released a new service called Google Buzz, which hooks into existing Google tools such as gMail and Google Reader. Some people like the new social networking tool, but others are (predictably) having trouble dealing with it. The problem is that Google automatically connects users in the new Buzz service to those people that are most often emailed in the users gMail account. Turns out that a woman who was divorced had her abusive ex-husband automatically added to her Buzz account. And his friends were added too. Yikes!
I wonder if this is what Scott McNealy was envisioning? I don’t think so, and here’s why.
When the Internet first took off people feared most the possibility that governments would have access to otherwise private data. They were also were afraid of insurance companies or other institutions doing the same thing. They weren’t afraid of social networking sites like FaceBook or Google Buzz, because those didn’t exist and nothing like them was even contemplated. What’s most amazing is not how quickly these companies have grown, but how quickly they’ve started abusing people’s privacy. Is this because they’re insensitive? Is it a failure of imagination? Or are they just greedy and arrogant?
I don’t think it’s the later, although I’m not willing to wager money on that. I suppose that’s a factor, but it’s probably not the main factor.
I think the folks at Facebook and Google (and other similar companies) are just not able to imagine how these tools will be used. And to an extent I can understand this. Look it’s hard enough to design software that is purely functional, e.g. a spreadsheet or a word-processing application. But it’s another thing to try to anticipate how an online social networking matrix will evolve. The mistakes that the folks who run these companies are making seem pretty obvious to us now. So why weren’t they obvious to the coders and project managers before the ‘new services’ were launched? Hmmmmm, I don’t know. But can anyone say ‘Aspergers syndrome’?
Hopefully, they’ll learn how to get over it.