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Social Networks’ Explosive Growth Revives Decades-Long Debate On Digital Privacy

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SAN FRANCISCO, December 2, 2009 - The phenomenal growth of online social networks is finally moving the decades-long debate over the nature of privacy in the digital world forward, said legal experts at an annual conference on innovation in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Congress has threatened to enact and revamp consumer privacy laws for decades, but the complexity of the task has generally stumped the body, except for the areas of finance and health.

But the evolution of the web into a social, interactive space, and its growing reach into people's everyday lives is forcing the issue onto front stage.

Digital rights group the Center for Technology and Democracy, for example, is launching a major new grassroots campaign Thursday to urge the public to push for new privacy legislation. A Wednesday media advisory said "the campaign will enlist concerned citizens in the fight to enact federal consumer privacy legislation and demand stronger privacy protections from companies."

The group is betting that the number of users of the networks who care about their privacy has reached a critical mass: Its campaign is using both microblogging service Twitter and Facebook to build support.

So many people use the networks and interact on them consistently that the notion of digital privacy is no longer an abstract concept, but a tangible one. CDT's Vice President of Public Policy Jim Dempsey disputed the stereotype of the privacy-oblivious youth of today. He believes that they are highly interested in controlling information about themselves in the digital world.

Separately, another rights group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Wednesday that it is suing the Justice Department as well as others to find out how they use social networks like Facebook and Twitter to conduct surveillance.

"The paradigm of how [U.S.] law expresses privacy needs to change," said Harriet Pearson, IBM's  chief privacy officer during a panel discussion at Supernova, an annual conference on innovation.

Unlike the United States, "the concept of the law around the world is: 'yes [my personal information] is out there, but I ought to have control over it,'" she said.

"That paradigm shift is hard to achieve in faith in law and policy," she said, but the Federal Trade Commission is going to explore how to do it in upcoming months, and so is the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications Information Administration.

"There is a role for regulation, and there will be more," Pearson predicted. "We can't get the technology to be more pervasive and productive unless we sort out these tensions."

In the meantime, the web's leading companies are redoubling their efforts to better communicate changes in their features and policies so that their users are not surprised.

On Tuesday, Facebook announced that it is overhauling its software settings and eliminating regional networks. Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote an open letter to the company's 350 million users around the world saying that the regional networks weren't an effective way for them to control their privacy.

Instead, Facebook is adding the ability to control who sees each individual piece of content that users add to the network.

And Yahoo works consistently to keep its 500 million monthly users apprised of who their activities are being shared with, said its Chief Privacy Officer Anne Toth.

It does this consistently by showing users who their activities are being shared with, she said.

Education, and teaching members of the public how to better manage the information that they generate about themselves in the digital world is another way to address the situation, Toth said.

Sarah Lai Stirland was Contributing Editor for until April 2011. She has covered business, finance and legal affairs, telecommunications and tech policy for 15 years from New York, Washington and San Francisco. She has written for Red Herring, National Journal's Technology Daily, and She's a native of London and Hong Kong, and is currently based in San Francisco.

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