Should you expect privacy from online services?

I think the answer is no, with some qualifications, which I’ll get to shortly. But here’s the thing. When you sign up for free services like Google‘s various offerings, Twitter, Facebook, free blogging platforms and a myriad of other services online, your value to those companies is in the data and content you produce. It is not in their interest to keep that data private. If privacy is important to you, then it is up to you — and only you — to safeguard it.

The only way you can guarantee online privacy is to avoid free services, including all social networks, altogether. But you need an email account, for instance. Well, there are many alternatives to the free email services. Your ISP, who you are paying to provide Internet service to you, will probably give you one. Or you can pay for an email account with a hosting company. The point is, when you pay for a service, then you have a right to expect a higher level of privacy, as agreed upon between you and the company. (Many people use a free email account for public transactions, like online purchases, and keep a private email account for, well, private communications.)

If you do decide to get a free email account or sign up with a social network, then you should accept right off the bat that you will be giving up some privacy. That is the deal with the devil you make in exchange for free access to these networks. You will no longer have total control over information about you and that you generate. It is best to know this and accept this from the start.

Personally, I like the openness that social networks have brought. I think it fosters communication, collaboration, sharing and understanding of our differences, but that is the idealist in me. Yes, there is a negative side, but that is true of anything with value. I think social networks help us express who we are, and feel okay with who we are.

But if you are going to use these services, and privacy is of some importance to you, then you need to become savvy about how they work. When you sign up for a service, you need to be willing to explore, play with settings, try things and see what happens, and learn what the service is doing and why. This means extra work, but as I said, it is not in these companies’ interest to protect your privacy, so you can’t expect it of them. It only took me five minutes of playing with Google Buzz to figure out that my followers were listed on my public profile and to turn that off. That was well before all the privacy warnings came out.

I have some sympathy for people whose email contacts were exposed by Buzz, because this was not an expected outcome. But only to a point. Because you had to participate in that exposure. You had to set up a free Gmail account. You had to turn on Buzz. You had to create a public Google Profile. You had to accept the list of followers/following presented to you by Buzz without making any changes to remove those who were not acceptable to you. At each point, you could stop and ask yourself what the privacy implications of this are. At the very least, you could wait a few days for the issues to surface. It was only a few hours before many news outlets on the web were posting about Buzz’s privacy issues and the fixes for them.

I think this is a good learning moment for all of us. By all means, play in the social networking playground. But remember that these free services still have a cost. Just like in the real world, online the only one you can count on to take care of yourself is you.

Google’s response to the privacy concerns and instructions for protecting your privacy when using Buzz. And Google may offer Buzz independently from Gmail.