The “Problem of Proportionality” in Debates about Online Privacy and Child Safety

by on November 28, 2009 · 12 comments

The Internet is massive. That’s the ‘no-duh’ statement of the year, right?  But seriously, the sheer volume of transactions (both economic and non-economic) is simply staggering.  Consider a few factoids to give you a flavor of just how much is going on out there:

  • In 2006, Internet users in the United States viewed an average of 120.5 Web pages each day.
  • There are over 1.4 million new blog posts every day.
  • Social networking giant Facebook reports that each month, its over 300 million users upload more than 2 billion photos, 14 million videos, and create over 3 million events. More than 2 billion pieces of content (web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photos, etc.) are shared each week. There are also roughly 45 million active user groups on the site.
  • YouTube reports that 20 hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute.
  • Amazon reported that on December 15, 2008, 6.3 million items were ordered worldwide, a rate of 72.9 items per second.
  • Every six weeks, there are 10 million edits made to Wikipedia.

Now, let’s think about how some of our lawmakers and media personalities talk about the Internet.  If we were to judge the Internet based upon the daily headlines in various media outlets or from the titles of various Congressional or regulatory agency hearings, then we’d be led to believe that the Internet is a scary, dangerous place. That ‘s especially the case when it comes to concerns about online privacy and child safety. Everywhere you turn there’s a bogeyman story about the supposed dangers of cyberspace.

But let’s go back to the numbers. While I certainly understand the concerns many folks have about their personal privacy or their child’s safety online, the fact is the vast majority of online transactions that take place online each and every second of the day are of an entirely harmless, even socially beneficial nature.  I refer to this disconnect as the “problem of proportionality” in debates about online safety and privacy. People are not just making mountains out of molehills, in many cases they are just making the molehills up or blowing them massively out of proportion.

Go back to those Facebook numbers, for example. 300 million users uploading 2 billion pieces of content each week, plus 45 million user groups.  Now, how many “incidents” do you hear about in the course of an entire year involving privacy and child safety on Facebook? A couple? A dozen?  I doubt it’s that many, but for the sake of argument, let’s be preposterous and say the number of incidents is 10,000.  Doing some quick math: 10,000 “incidents” divided by 2 billion pieces of content shared each week = 0.001%   In other words, there would need to be hundreds of thousands of privacy or child safety “incidents” taking place on Facebook each week before one could legitimately claim the trend was statistically significant in proportion to the total volume of transactions.

Of course, there’s no way to be scientific about this since I can’t crunch the numbers to get an exact calculation for Facebook or the entire Internet since it’s hard to even define or collect info about online “incidents.” And this is not to say there are never any incidents online where some harm might come to an individual or a child.  Defining “harm” can be contentious, however, especially when it comes to what I regard as the conjectural theories about advertising or provocative media content “harming” us or our kids.

Of course, others could claim that the sheer volume of information that we put online about ourselves is problematic for a variety of other reasons. The best argument about potential harm coming of all this information being online is that the sheer volume of data sharing and collection opens up the door to identify theft, or that some government agencies could get their hands on it and use it to do nasty stuff to us.  That first problem can be a legitimate one, and deserves more attention and greater consumer education. But that latter problem should be addressed by putting more constraints on our government(s), not by imposing more regulations on the Internet. Government powers should be tightly limited when it comes to monitoring the habits of websurfers or collecting information about them.

Nonetheless, it is my contention that an infinitesimal percentage of all daily online transactions and interactions involve serious privacy violations or harm to children.  Until they can prove otherwise, we need to demand that our policymakers and folks in the press put these issues into some perspective before they jump to conclusion about online life.  Enough of the fear-mongering and techno-panics!

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