If you want to follow an emerging issue in reputation management, the growing conflict at the intersection of business interests and privacy rights is ripe for some drama. Those who manage the reputation of an organization, or who care about how reputations of individuals are formed, online and offline, should take note.
The implications of paying for digital information and social media services by sharing details about online habits, interests, and relationships is neatly summed up in the March 1 edition of the US version of Newsweek, by columnist Daniel Lyons. His excellent one-page summary of privacy as currency ( “Google’s Orwell Moment”) describes the intergenerational and cross-cultural concerns presented by online business models that openly gather information from participants and turn that information into revenue.
Many people are just becoming aware of this issue. So far, the internal debate many people are having about the value of their privacy resembles the signature comedy bit from 50 years ago by Jack Benny. Benny, in his cheapskate persona, is held up at gunpoint by a criminal who says, “Your money, or your life.” After a long pause, Benny says, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”
When it comes to the value of privacy as currency, many of us are saying, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”
For now, businesses that come to be known as privacy thieves will face a serious reputation problem. Those companies pushing for the use of more private information from their online users should ask themselves if their advocacy of personal transparency is matched by corporate transparency? So far, it’s a “heads I win, tails you lose” situation. Most online information harvesters are saying that their proprietary business interests prevent them from sharing all the information they gather. Understandable from a business point of view, but perhaps not from a public policy viewpoint.
The timing of the evolution of public expectations of privacy is a business issue, not just a reputation problem. Move too soon and you act against the public interest, potentially stimulating regulatory or legislative response. Move too late and you lose the competitive advantage.
Google and Facebook are cited as two companies that are profiting from what they claim are changing social norms around privacy. But they are only two of hundreds, or thousands. Those who want to profit by surfing the choppy waters of change in the issue of privacy may be in for a long, rough ride. It can’t be proven yet that this is a societal shift. Privacy expectations may vary by generation not because of internet fluency, but because those who are younger ultimately have less to lose from sharing details of their lives and transactions.
If this is a generational shift that will reshape public expectations of privacy permanently, there is still the issue of cross-cultural differences in expectations. The fundamental meaning of privacy varies by country and culture. In many cultures, privacy and identity are very close to the core of human value.
Despite the internet’s demand for speed, and “launch it today, fix it later” it is unlikely a core human value will change quickly. So the shift to privacy as currency is going to take time. When it comes to changes in basic societal values, companies need to stop and listen, and look closely at their risks as well as their opportunities.