Privacy and the internet


SHOULD PEOPLE be allowed to change their names to disassociate themselves from embarrassing youthful follies or damaging indiscretions recorded on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter? Eric Schmidt, chief executive of internet search engine Google, believes they should. He bases his argument on the modern reality that details of the private lives and personal views of young people are now so easily accessible online. Certainly, there is cause for concern, especially for job-seekers. A recent Microsoft survey of employers found that two-thirds had rejected applicants on the basis of personal information obtained from internet searches.

Online social networks such as Facebook, which has about 500 million members, are a growth phenomenon of the internet age. They have changed how people communicate with each other by enabling the exchange of text, pictures and videos between friends: easily, quickly and at little cost. People now spend more time on such sites than on e-mail. Their power and influence was best exemplified in the US presidential election campaign of Barack Obama where Facebook and Twitter were fully exploited in mobilising voter support for him.

However, individual privacy remains a serious concern in both the operation of social networks and some internet companies. Too much personal information is too easily available where network sites have failed to provide adequate privacy protection to users, with potentially damaging consequences to their future reputation or their job prospects.

Likewise, Google has shown a cavalier disregard for privacy concerns. The company admitted last May that in recording pictures for Google Maps it had also gathered data sent over wireless networks in Irish homes and businesses. It subsequently apologised for what it termed a “mistake” and deleted the information held.

Individuals have an interest in protecting their online privacy while the business model of many internet companies is quite the opposite: it is based on exploiting that personal information for commercial gain. Individuals have little knowledge or control over how these companies use, collect, process and store such information.

Given the stark conflict in these two positions, it is hardly surprising that internet companies have done so little to ease concerns by accepting the public has a right to see information held about them, to be told how it is used, with whom it is shared and how securely it is protected.