There have been plenty of debates over the rise of social networking sites and the impact they have on privacy. In most cases, privacy advocates are quick to warn users of these sites that information posted on the Internet is forever out there, potentially available to anyone with Web connection.
In a session called Privacy and the Social Web at the Supernova conference in San Francisco, it was surprising to hear Jim Dempsey, vice president of public policy for the Center for Democracy and Technology, suggest that the "social networking phenomenon could be the savior of privacy."
As crazy as it sounds, Dempsey tapped into a thought that popped into my head yesterday when I logged on to Facebook and spotted a big headline about a blog post from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. It was in my face. I couldn't help but see it. Sure, it was disruptive to my Facebook experience but the company wanted to make sure that its users saw it. Why? Because it pertained to their privacy settings.
Back to Dempsey's point, the realization that we are putting granular information about ourselves on the Web has become a center-stage topic. And that sort of awareness is incredibly valuable.
Because it's a young company, Facebook is building from the ground up and learning as it goes. Clearly, Facebook has made some blunders in the past - notably the launch of Beacon and the impromptu changes to its terms and services - that prompted backlash from its user base. But Facebook has also learned from those experiences - and it seems that others have learned from them, as well.
Anne Toth, who heads privacy efforts at Yahoo, highlighted the shift toward a more social experience on its properties and detailed some of the challenges that come with being an established site with an established user base that's suddenly introducing new ways of doing thing.
To a certain extent, Yahoo has watched Facebook slip, fall and pick themselves up after their blunders, she said. Yesterday's alert of privacy changes was disruptive - but that's OK. Facebook knew better than to just make changes without alerting its users. Yahoo understands the significance of that, as well.
Privacy and the Internet will continue to be a hot topic of debate. Policies dealing with social media and privacy - whether at the corporate level or government level - cannot be an end-all solution. Keeping people engaged in the privacy discussion is one way to keep them from becoming complacent and comfortable with what they're putting out there.
Keeping that discussion alive is a good thing.