The Ethics of Online Secrecy

August 10, 2010

facebook privacy ethics rights

Do we have the right to observe others without their knowledge?

Fifty years before Facebook came along this question would have been a much easier to answer. The answer would have been a quick “No. Of course not.”

In the physical world, this point of view still holds true. We don’t assume it’s our right to follow someone around town, hiding behind trashcans and bushes to mask our presence. But how does this point of view shift when we get on the web?

Recently, my girlfriend introduced me to a fascinating debate currently underway in a relatively small niche social network / blogging platform. It’s a closed system composed of mostly alumnae of the same university, and each person has a profile to which they can publish any length of text, including links, pics, and videos. Very much like any blog, except a bit more like LiveJournal in its closed-off-ness and how the posts tend to be very referential to each other in more of an ongoing community dialogue than just a collection of personal commentary.

Historically this platform has had a function available that enables users to see who is reading whose profiles; i.e. if I opted in to this feature, other users would be able to see that I had read their profile, and I would be able to see which users were reading my profile. But, this is a strictly opt-in two-way feature. Only the people who have opted in can be seen by others.

Not at all unlike Facebook, some people prefer to read other profiles anonymously, without the performer knowing that they are out there in the audience.

But, a few weeks ago, one of the super-admins floated the idea of automatically opting everyone in – by default – to the non-anonymous version of the system. In other words, everyone would be able to see everyone who had visited their profile, and no one would  be able to visit anyone else’s profile without that person knowing.

As you might guess, not everyone was comfortable with this situation. Imagine if one day Facebook announced that they had changed the rules, and suddenly we each had a Visitor Reports page that listed which other users had checked out our profile recently, what they checked out, and how frequently they visited. For an instant it might be awesome…before we quickly realized that everyone else had it, too. Suddenly all of our exes, first-grade crushes, ex-friends, workplace crushes, arch nemesis and mortal enemies, and all the other people we keep tabs on would see that we had been visiting their profile. I suspect we’d see a previously unimagined level of outrage from the Facebook user community.

Which leads me in a very round-about way (Forgive me. You take two months off from blogging, and it takes a little time to get back in shape.) to my original question:  Do we have the right to observe others without their knowledge? The scenario above, and imagining how it would be treated within Facebook, leads me to answer emphatically, “Yes. Absolutely. …on the web.”

What is it about the web that flips this long-held social norm on its head? Why do we guard our browsing habits so closely? Why are we scared of what Google might have to share about us? Why do we feel that it’s our right to look at someone’s Facebook photos without them knowing?

Comments very welcome.


16 Responses to “The Ethics of Online Secrecy”

  1. Leigh Says:


    To me, Facebook is the equivalent of having a community billboard. It’s my community and I put that billboard out there for everyone to see, read and experience.

    While I know of Facebook apps that can show me whose been looking at my profile, I chose not to install that because really, who cares. If i didn’t want it up on the billboard I wouldn’t put it there.

    I think the beauty and success of most of the best social networks is the fact that it is public and it’s a shared collective between a community. Taking that away will also take away some of the most important benefits that have made it so compelling in the first place.

    • When the internet slowly started entering our daily lives – it was a magical place where you could be whoever you wanted to be and act anyway you wanted. An entire generation has come to equate anonymity with freedom. With the advent of platforms like Facebook, we have traded this anonymity for connections. It’s hard to make 500 friends when no one knows your name.

      Here comes the dichotomy – we still treasure the freedom of anonymity – and we want our freedom and our connectivity to live in the same place. Before migrating to Facebook, I spent a lot of time on Orkut – a social networking site that offered the “see-who-visited-your-profile” feature – and people loved it – it also made people more cognizant of how they acted on the Web – it brought a certain amount of discipline to the social network. But these were people from Brazil and India – who had skipped steps in the Internet revolution and never really played in the anonymous space – they jumped right into social networking. So, when Orkut offered this feature – they didn’t feel they were “losing” their freedom.

      It’s just that we’d like to hum our favorite tunes in the subway, but the moment someone’s watching us – we become conscious. It doesn’t really affect our humming – but we’d rather nobody heard us. Or in my case, it’s because people just don’t appreciate my rendition of Don’t Stop Believin’.

  2. Mike,

    As the most active social network users mature, they will discover a new phenomenon.

    They already experience conflicting contexts – parents reading messages intended for friends, college admissions officers reading messages intended for a moment in time that isn’t even relevant anymore.

    As their lives become more complex, the importance of context will become, not just an occasional hiccup, but a constant conflict.

    Who wants to be taken out of context? Who wants those who think they know what you care about guessing basing on some meaningless comment?

    If social networks do not provide individuals with control over their communications, then individuals will (and probably do more and more) self-censure.

    Disrupting this ambiguity will be a powerful innovation.

    Katherine Warman Kern

  3. Howie Says:

    We all know media, brands, social media networks and those that champion them (mashable), and agencies want privacy dead. The question isn’t if its dead its what the people want. Here are some interesting facts. Most Facebook profiles are marked private including 90% of the Social Media champions who give talks, write books etc. Over 80% of users I come across they are also locked down. On Twitter we know it is public but you can operate anonymously. So people are freer to be themselves.

    Then there is this survey from last year. The first heavy hitter academic survey asking people about behavioral targeting without their consent. 80% were against it. Even more significant was 50% wanted jail time for managers of companies that collect data without our consent.

    We know it is going on. But most people are clueless and have no idea the details of why, how etc. And when they get asked proper questions they get concerned.

    So tread ye Brands, Agencies, Social Network and BTers because these people vote! And Congress can regulate and plenty of law firms make a killing on class action law suits.

    Here is the study:

  4. mikearauz Says:

    The debate I’ve laid out here is certainly related to the “Is privacy dead?” debate; but, I’m actually looking at it from another side.

    I don’t question the need for individuals to be able to control who has access to their Facebook profile, or control who is able to see what we choose to put out on the web.

    I have a question about the flip-side. Think about how you view other’s Facebook profiles, and other people’s online stuff. Yes, if they’ve decided to make it available to you, then we assume it’s ok for you to see it. But, why do we also assume that we have the right to see it without them knowing that we saw it, i.e. to browse in secret?

    It’s an odd and fascinating little corner of the online privacy discussion, and I think one that runs contrary to most of our other beliefs.

  5. Great stuff as always. I think to answer your initial question, I would say yes, we do have the right to observe others without their knowledge on the web.

    I think it all comes down to the “expectation of privacy” really. You don’t expect someone to videotape your dinner conversation and show it to everyone they know, but as Leigh mentions, when you post something to various social networks, you almost have to assume it’s going to be seen.

    However, an interesting scenario arises when you intentionally block your profile (to everyone except friends on facebook, for example) and people attempt to get around it and view it anyway. This kind of thing happens frequently with employers, but also happened while I was at PSU when facebook was still only for students. The university police services “enlisted” some students that worked for them so they could go on and look at pictures of students that had tagged themselves storming the field after a big football win. Those students they could identify were served citations.

    In this case, I would say that you have a reasonable expectation of privacy even though it relates to something you posted to the internet. I wonder where you draw the line though…

  6. Sam Says:

    “What is it about the web that flips this long-held social norm on its head? Why do we guard our browsing habits so closely? Why are we scared of what Google might have to share about us? Why do we feel that it’s our right to look at someone’s Facebook photos without them knowing?”

    Because the social web – and therein social networking in all its beautiful incarnations – is entirely fake. As you’ve mentioned in your previous post Mike (and what Paul Adams has covered) the nature of how Facebook propagates and manages the interconnection between ‘friends’ is quite false when we compare them to naturally occurring social networks – an ‘unnatural’ tendency to emphasise the one-to many, rather than the one-to-some. What you cover in this post Mike is another example of social networking’s current poor real world mapping. More questions – Is this merely a case of infancy in digital networks or a fundamental difference that will and possibly should…always be?

    As much as I love my digital world, it will never be a replacement for my real world.

  7. Dan Weingrod Says:

    I agree with your emphatic answer, but also believe that we need to feel that we are in control when we give up our information. As for why the Web might be the reason, that’s tough, but I’ve been thinking that maybe it has to do with the Web’s generosity.

    As an information vehicle the Web is the most outrageously generous medium we have ever seen. Maybe we feel that we need to match that generosity at some level in the amount of personal information we are willing to cede.

    It makes me think of the Potlatch ritual of the Kwakiutl and other Northwest Tribes. The potlatch was essentially a generosity contest between rival tribes or groups. Each group’s chief would destroy symbols and items of wealth in a public ceremony in front of the other group. Whoever destroyed the most “won” and gained higher status. Perhaps we are engaged in a similar internal potlatch with the Web and our peers.

  8. Bud Caddell Says:


    Good question and nice comments.

    Funny … in the psychical world it’s almost a question of latency. Sure, if you follow me directly down the street, you’re a perv. But if you retrace my steps a month later, a year later, a decade later, you’re either slightly askew or a huge fan (depending on my level of fame).

    Online, latency is pushed to the extremes. Anything someone did was either a while ago, or a few minutes ago. Remember that old website where you could ‘friend’ people? … what was it … oh yeah, Myspace. Remember on Myspace when you could see who was online at any time (with a bad animated gif), and you could also see your profile views tick up every time you refreshed the page? I also remember that there would constantly be rumors that people could install something on their profile that tracked other people’s lurking … oh those were such simple days.

    Back to your question … if you liken it to olden times, it’s almost like, “Do we have the right to observe other people’s flower gardens?” – because largely, I think we assume that, if we have access to see it, the person must have curated it for people like ourselves. While as individuals, we may understand that privacy is a trickier pursuit, I think that we ascribe a pure rational state to friends and strangers, for the most part. Oh, she put up party pics. She must have meant for people to see them.

    We assume people have exercised control over their own privacy. And hence, it’s not private. It’s public. (of course, we always over assume that people are always rational)

    But as the example of your gf’s social network points out, we may feel comfortable staring at our neighbor’s flower garden, but we’re not always comfortable with them watching us stare at their flower garden. Suddenly it’s a public act of interaction. And interaction implies further sociability – that we may not be ready for at that moment in time. We may look at the cute barista’s profile on Facebook, but we’re not quite ready to tell her in person that we like the tattoo on her forearm. I have the right to look at her profile, because she chose to make it public, just as if I’d have a right to look at her flower garden because she chose to make that public. But that doesn’t mean I’m ready to talk about it with her.

  9. Andreas Says:

    Even fifty years ago, the answer would’ve been a clear: Yes!

    Why? Because this social network is for sharing information, not for hiding it. I don’t even get why social networks would introduce privacy settings, because people can feel free to choose another way of sharing private information, but this is the worldwide web – with worldwide content producers _and_ worldwide consumers. Noone forced you to use it, noone forced you to sign up for facebook, noone forced you to put your private content on the world wide web, so don’t complain to the world about your own misconceptions.

    If you don’t want to broadcast your private information, there’s other parts like email or darknets for doing so. Or write a letter with pictures in the envelope, how cool is that! Imagine the happy faces on the receivers end.

    I hope facebook and the other major networks will pull the steven slater plug on complaining users and enjoy the other 499 Mio of users who are happy to share.

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  13. Ah the never-ending Facebook question. I’ve got hardly anything on my Fcaebook profile for the same reason – I’m just not comfortable with people seeing my info on it, especially given most ‘friends’ on it aren’t really ‘good’ friends, they’re just acquaintances. I follow the principle of if you’ve got it up on a public site like that, then you’re giving your permission for others to view it – THAT’s what gives us the right to browse in secret. I haven’t put up much precisely because I’m not comfortable with people from my past keeping tabs on me, but I have SOMEthing there because it may help people I really would like to get back into contact with, actually reach me.

    Gautam’s already mentioned the Orkut example.

    The very structure of the web makes this issue crucial to discuss though. As Bud said “We assume people have exercised control over their own privacy. And hence, it’s not private. It’s public. (of course, we always over assume that people are always rational)” – the problem is that people AREN’T rational. danah boyd spoke about precisely that at SXSW this year. I guess that won’t change – not massively. People are people, rational and often under-educated or simply unconcerned about privacy (like my husband, for example), and there will always be new people – completely virgin FB users – joining the network. And therefore, as the hoo-ha about Facebook’s privacy rules and such continue to be debated, this topic will always be relevant.

    Do we have the right to browse in secret if the person ‘giving’ us the right is unaware of the fact that they are?

  14. Oops I meant people are irrational.

  15. amber finlay Says:

    this is exactly what killed Friendster. They implemented a feature, back in like 2003 or whatever, that showed you who had viewed your profile. The freedom to stalk and obsess anonymously had been taken away, and the fact that the site died soon after kind of tells you something about people’s motivations for using social networks. I believe that there are lots of other reasons to use social networks, but at the end of the day, most of us are creeps at the window with binoculars, sitting there with the lights off. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, or a wrong thing…it’s just how people are.

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