Online Privacy Matters: People Are Responsible And So Are Marketers

I had a very interesting discussion this past week regarding online privacy. The crux of the debate was whether there was any such thing as privacy online. Is it a myth? Should we just accept that the traditional notion of personal privacy is passé and move on?

15 years ago I remember having a chat with someone when the web was young and people had lots of questions about it. I was very cautionary about the web and personal information. I made it clear that any information you elected to share via the web and even some you hadn’t personally elected to share could and likely would be used to manipulate or even control you.

I’m not going to say I told you so. It didn’t take any great talent or foresight for me to make that observation. Anyone with knowledge of history can tell you that information has always been power. The more you know about someone the more potential control you have over them. Blackmail for example, is an art as old as civilization.

You and you alone are responsible for your personal privacy online. Consider this quote from social media blogger, Xan Pearson: “While privacy policies are a vital component of social networks, and users should always evaluate how changes impact their personal information, no one should take for granted that this is an evolving medium on the information super highway.  Whether it’s a business or personal account, what is shared is ultimately controlled by you.”

Your information is the business of a business

You are responsible! It’s idiotic for us to expect either government or business to ensure our personal privacy as things stand now. Information is their business and the more information they have the more effective, productive and profitable they believe they will be. Any consequences to their customers or constituents are simply the cost of doing that business. Mistakes are never intentional of course. What Google, Facebook and all the others really want is your personal data and digital identity. Madison Avenue pays a lot for it.

I’m not trying to be Orwellian here. I’m simply trying to be realistic. While we may not have to fear for our privacy, we should certainly be concerned about it and the only one who will be concerned about it is you. Expecting anyone else to protect you is at best short sighted and at worst, stupid.

To really be a part and thus, get the most out of any community online or off, you must share part of you and to some degree relinquish a little precious privacy.  However, perspective is absolutely vital to avoiding the pitfalls of online privacy. Before you post something or type something, ask yourself if you are sharing too much. Just because other people in any given community choose to share themselves, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for you. Each of us has their own comfort level regarding personal privacy and each of us must be their own personal privacy guardian.

So, I do not agree when Zuckerberg says “privacy is dead”. It is a basic human right. Of course the pressure to be ‘open’, ‘transparent’ and ‘authentic’ is huge. But this doesn’t mean you have to share everything.

When Mr. Zuckerberg states that “privacy is dead” what he is really trying to do is lower the reasonable expectations we have regarding it. Privacy isn’t dead so long as you care about your own.

Marketers: don’t play with people’s digital identity, your reputation is at stake

Privacy is like safety. If it’s cheaper for corporations to risk your safety then it is to ensure it, they will choose the cheaper option. The airline industry is a good example of this twisted logic. Once it really costs corporations to breach trust and privacy, they will value it. But they will never value your privacy as one does their own.

These days, we even have to add all kinds of clauses in the emails we send. Everything we mail can be shared by anyone wanting to (I went through the experience). There is no “off the record” anymore and the privacy and confidentiality we once supposed in person-to-person email interactions is gone.

Finally a word for marketers since, in the end, that’s the target group of this blog: don’t play with privacy and don’t look at permission to converse, regardless of the channel, whenever you choose.

An email address today is part of a person’s digital identity. He or she uses it to subscribe to a gazillion of services. These include social media by the way. There is some irony in this: social media, often called the death of email, require an email address to sign up.

My email address is part of who I am in a digital world. And in that digital world we all have the right to some privacy. Social or not.

It will also be interesting to see how all debates regarding behavioral targeting will turn out in various countries.

So, in the end, privacy is our responsibility but also that of marketers. Abuse it and pay the price: reputation and more.

Agree? Disagree?