Peter Bazalgette has written a thoughtful piece about privacy and social networking sites, so for once I will dispense with the usual toilet jokes. I do think he’s got it slightly wrong however.
Firstly, attitudes amongst young people and those websites. I have to admit, I’m amazed at the number of people who are quite happy to have anyone read the most personal of information about them on sites like Facebook. One of the first things I did was to look at the privacy settings and find out what casual visitors to the site could learn about me. Very little, as it turns out, unless I let them. I can even change what my ‘friends’ can see. So I’m fairly happy.
On the other hand, clearly a lot of other users don’t have such concerns. They should, and maybe such sites should do more to educate them about the risks. With that said however, Bazalgette doesn’t seem to understand the technology. If I decided to join the “A woman’s place is in the kitchen” group I could do so, knowing that I could both leave and remove any public trace of the fact that I had joined in the first place. Even if I did make all my details public, a future employer would struggle to find me amongst the dozens of James Grahams (they’d have an easier time finding a Peter Bazalgette admittedly). To an extent I suspect people are indeed taking account of the risks, and concluding (rightly or wrongly) that they are worth taking.
But is there a chance that attitudes are fundamentally changing? I’ve noticed that the sort of people who have an exaggerated concern about their conduct as a 20-something being regarded as ‘private’ tend to have something in their past to be ashamed about. I don’t have an issue with people knowing that I used to be heavily involved with the Manchester University Film Society, but then, why should I? It is part of who I am, and I don’t believe I have fundamentally changed. By the same token, I find it hard to believe that David Cameron has fundamentally changed since his days as a member of the Bullingdon Club and I’m pretty certain John Reid hasn’t fundamentally changed since his days as a Communist.
These aren’t particularly private acts – we all leave traces, from photos to mentions in student union newspapers. I don’t believe we have a right to restrict the media from mentioning them – that is going beyond privacy and steps into censoring what is in the public domain. David Cameron doesn’t have a right, in my view, to keep his life before he entered politics private. He has a general right to privacy about both his past and present – one he compromises every day he flaunts his disabled child in front of the press. And he should be able to reconcile his past; if he can’t, it is an important issue.
So I don’t think these websites represent a particular challenge to people entering public life since most normal people don’t join toffs’ clubs or totalitarian political parties. If it introduces a little more Darwinian selection into the mix, that can only be a good thing (joining misogynistic Facebook groups even as a ‘joke’ suggests your values are dubious), but in the face of such things applying to simply thousands of people simultaneously, it will be balanced out to an extent by a degree of proportion – which can also only be a good thing.
We all need to get to grips with the implications that the internet has regarding privacy. I have to admit that from time to time I worry about whether I’m too careless about it myself. But social networking sites aren’t really the problem. Credit card details, passwords and those dubious black boxes that now sit in every single ISP’s office… that’s a different story.