Skip to main content

Ann Cavoukian, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario

There was a considerable amount of controversy recently when Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook, the world's most popular online social network, was misquoted as saying that "privacy is no longer a social norm." What he actually said was: "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time."

But few appear to recall his exact words - the take-away (erroneous though it may be) was that Mr. Zuckerberg no longer considered privacy to be a social norm (reflected in the many calls I received asking me to respond to that statement). While I would not presume to speak for Mr. Zuckerberg, his staff confirmed that his words were taken out of context.

What I emphatically submit is that there is little evidence to change our view that privacy remains a social norm. Privacy relates to freedom of choice and control in the sphere of one's personal information - choices regarding what information you wish to share and, perhaps more important, what you do not want shared with others. What has changed, however, is the means by which personal information is now readily exchanged, at the speed of light.

In the past, personal information was kept largely private because of limited personal exchange systems (i.e., live contact, telephone, snail mail). The technological means by which such information may now be shared has exploded - that is what has changed meteorically, not the collapse of privacy as a social norm. No doubt, technology may have an effect on a person's ultimate choice of what personal information to share, but it should still be the individual who makes that choice - a decision conditional not only on technology but on other factors and needs in one's life.

Let me speak for a moment as a psychologist (in my former life). The human condition requires connection: We are social animals who seek contact with each other. We also seek privacy: moments of solitude, intimacy, quiet, reserve and control - personal control. These interests have co-existed for centuries and must continue to do so, for the human condition requires both.

The fact that social media are growing exponentially does not negate that equation. What this explosion in technology does raise, however, is whether it is possible to preserve the notion of data protection in the online world. Can we continue to control and protect the personal information we share with others in social media, or are such media essentially becoming public spheres?

Let me point out the importance of taking a positive-sum (win/win) approach, instead of a zero-sum (win/lose) one, in tackling this. By adopting such a lens, one can easily see that people can have multiple interests that may co-exist.

Take the growth of online social networks and privacy. In this world of multi-tasking and limited attention span, a zero-sum approach in which the strengthening of one interest (connecting) leads to a reduction in an "opposing" interest (privacy) is not only limiting but rarely productive; it is also an approach that may be considered technologically "lazy." Alternatively, taking a positive-sum approach is doubly enabling - facilitating both social connections and privacy.

The amount of personal information shared is a decision that is the result of a process that waxes and wanes over a person's lifetime. It is not that privacy has stopped being the norm; it is that privacy is a dynamic that is a complex function based on an individual's needs and choices - choices that must be respected and strongly protected if we are to maintain freedom and liberty in our society. This will largely depend on the measures taken by both online social networks to embed easily accessible, privacy-protective controls into their offerings, and the willingness of people to use them.

Ann Cavoukian is Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.