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Will 2009 Be the Year of Multiple Digital Identities?

Will 2009 Be the Year of Multiple Digital Identities?

The desire to freely network online competes with the desire to maintain a semblance of control over one's image. It's common for individuals to adopt different personas for different situations, notes TechNewsWorld columnist Sonia Arrison. Will that behavior translate into the adoption of multiple digital profiles?

By Sonia Arrison
01/09/09 11:22 AM PT

Just days after microblogging company Twitter was hacked, a group of entrepreneurs and policy activists gathered at Facebook's Palo Alto headquarters to discuss "Privacy 2009: The Year Ahead." The discussion, cohosted by Tech Policy Central, demonstrated that the privacy debate is starting to mature.

Instead of inflexible government dictates for data usage, privacy activists agreed that rules need to be set in a way that encourages innovation.

Chris Hoofnagle, director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, called for an "evolving standard, so innovations can happen," as the way to protect privacy and security.

"You can't legislate common sense," remarked Jim Dempsey, vice president of public policy for the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Many Faces

Such comments reflect a move away from the old and unhelpful debates that cast the choice between privacy and data control as all or nothing. The recent Twitter hacking shows that security is always a big fear, said Chris Kelly, Facebook's chief privacy officer and head of global public policy. Kelly also said that Facebook was trying to give its users more control over their profiles using privacy settings.

Currently, 60 percent of Facebook's teen users have implemented privacy controls, compared with only 25 percent to 30 percent of adult users. This is an interesting statistic, given the common assumption that members of the younger generation don't care who sees their data. It is probably also a sign to entrepreneurs that there will be greater demand in the future for people to do more with their profiles, meaning more than one. That particular question brought up more controversy than one might expect.

If people could have more than one profile, argued Facebook's Chris Kelly, the user experience would break down.

"It is important to have a single identity, and you may want to show different parts to different people," he said.

Not everyone was convinced. Indeed, as Dempsey pointed out, in real life people often showcase very distinct identities in different situations.

When at work, for example, people have a career persona. When at a spouse's event, they don their spouse persona, and when picking up their children from school, they show their parent persona. Many people like to keep these personas separate. Now, of course, people often tell coworkers about their kids, but they don't necessarily want to be defined that way in the context of their workplace. Being able to keep these identities apart in a more convenient way may very well be the next big social network innovation that consumers can't wait to embrace.

Watching the Watchers

For its part, Facebook has made small attempts to allow for such customization using its "limited profiles," but the system is too clunky and it requires too much work for anyone easily to have different online personas. This problem brings up an old, but still relevant, issue when it comes to privacy and data control. How can users have more control -- and more privacy -- without giving up convenience?

Whoever can answer that question will win big, and Privacy 2009 participants were reminded that if the private sector fails to come up with solutions, then regulators will be all too happy to step in and "help." Of course, from the point of view of many activists, government is already too involved in touching consumer data -- another old, yet highly relevant, issue.

"Data collected for ads shouldn't be used for government purposes," Chris Hoofnagle argued.

"All of your data is available to the government under low standards," Jim Dempsey warned.

No one disagreed with either speaker, yet many see the problem as unsolvable. If information that one posts on Facebook or any other social networking site can be collected by government, that is a good reason for the privacy hawks to train their eyes on appropriate government use of data.

Perhaps it also represents an opportunity for political entrepreneurs to create software to monitor government use of data, particularly when the incoming Obama administration appears open to issues of government transparency.

The new year will continue to bring interesting twists and turns when it comes to social networking and privacy. If market demand leads the way, users should see new and better opportunities to manage their digital identities online.


Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology Visit the VMware Tech Center studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.


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