Google, Facebook, privacy and digital identities

Mobile world blurs line of business vs. personal

As you are no doubt aware, Google is consolidating its privacy policies across all services in its platform. This means instead of 60 disparate privacy policies there will be one.

Simplification is good. Especially when it comes to privacy. While there are certainly concerns to be had with the new policy (such as wording that allows Google to hand over your data to the government without being served with a warrant), it’s good to have it all in one place.

That way, if you disagree with it you can choose to not use the company’s services.

I can hear some folks sputtering now about how it’s impossible to use the Web without using Google services, but that just isn’t the case. There are other email providers, other search engines, other analytics tools, and so on.

Sure, some of them cost money or aren’t feature-for-feature comparable to their Google equivalents. But alternatives do exist.

Facebook, with its abysmal track record on privacy protections for its users, has been a lightning rod for privacy conversations. Users have even set up protest pages about privacy controls within Facebook (which, for the record, serve as a great place for Facebook to make money pushing advertising).

What’s more interesting to me than comparing various privacy policies is the increasing prominence that "privacy" has in certain corners of digital thinking.

Digital identity

Several years ago the big competitive front in the online world was centered around digital identity: the one login to rule them all.

The theory was that it was too cumbersome for people to log in and enter all of their information to all of the various profiles, and that what was needed was a sort of single sign-on for the online world.

It certainly is true that a certain fatigue sets in while filling out social network profiles. And while the digital identity competition seems to have settled on the three usual suspects (Google, Twitter and Facebook) for social profiles, there really hasn’t come to pass a single digital identity.

The reason for this is simple: People have multiple identities online. Or rather, people use tools for different reasons to fulfill very different needs.

Put yet another way, the social fabric of human relationships is not yet mirrored adequately in our digital experiences.

Some people use digital tools only for work-related tasks. Some people use digital tools only for personal connections. Some use digital tools for activism, or for activities that occupy a gray area between their personal and professional lives.

Most people like to have a fairly distinct line between all of the different online personas they may have.

We’ve heard enough fear/uncertainty/doubt stories about people who accidentally use their professional social tools in conjunction with their personal activities or thoughts to know that it’s probably a good idea to maintain some sort of boundary. At least, for most people that’s the case.

This is why privacy matters to people. They want the opportunity to have personal lives or hobbies or interests that they can explore using digital tools, but they don’t want to necessarily mix them all together.

Convenience

Currently, however, it isn’t very convenient to maintain all of these multiple personalities. Should we maintain several Facebook accounts: one for your mom, one for your co-workers, one for your business relationships, one for whatever crazy stuff you’re into? Should we use different networks entirely? It’s a mess.

It would seem — based on the all-hat-no-cattle approach of people who complain about privacy policies yet do not leave the services about which they are complaining — that convenience is winning.

The ease of just logging in and knowing that a service is probably using your data in some way that’s creepy is outweighing the decision to take any meaningful action against that service.

Vendor relationship management

In 2006, Doc Searls came up with the concept of "Vendor Relationship Management." It’s sort of the inverse of customer relationship management. The short version is that the customer would maintain his or her own data and decide which businesses could access and do stuff with that data.

I was always a little cold towards VRM. Customers don’t want to "manage relationships" with businesses. They just want their stuff or their service.

And even with a VRM system in place, someone would have to provide it. You’d have to trust that someone an awful lot. You’d probably have to trust that someone more than any you trust any technology company today because they’d have the data that comprised all of your digital personalities.

VRM solved a problem for businesses more than it ever solved a problem for consumers. It basically is a system that gets the customer to do the data entry instead of the business.

But perhaps conversations around privacy could tilt that a little bit. Perhaps, if people truly did care about privacy and control of their data, it would solve a problem for real people. It would let them maintain control of their digital identities.

I don’t yet see anyone making an honest and useful tool that does VRM. But as digital devices escape the office desktop and dive into our pockets and social spaces, the issue of privacy is not going to get easier.

Either there will be a change in social acceptance of the inevitable gaffes that occur when personal and business streams are crossed, or meaningful and convenient systems will take hold.

For now, I’m betting on the former. Though less than I was even last year.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.

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