SXSW 2010: User Privacy -- The "Social Contract" With Users

SXSW panel Can The Real-Time Web Be Realized? ended up in the same place many conversations about the real-time web led: user privacy.

While new technologies continue to emerge, allowing people to share more information on what seems like a daily basis, the privacy protections built into these tools, not to mention the law, has nowhere near caught up.

Is the market failing us in terms of user privacy? Microsoft's Dare Obasanjo pointed out that companies like Facebook started a vicious cycle, rolling out new changes to the site, which diminish user privacy and then scaling back some of the changes at a later date when they see the public outrage. This cycle was also touched upon in today's Opening Remarks by social media researcher and expert Danah Boyd.

There were many lessons for developers in the panel, but the big privacy take away should be this: Build with the mindset that your users, no matter how careful you are with data, are going to be surprised at how their data is being used. As technologists navigate their way through better systems to protect user privacy, a good rule of thumb is to at least give your users a "heads up" in terms of what data is being collected and how it is being used.

This is just one part of the evolving "social contract" that should just be understood between platforms and their users. Corporate-created legal regimes crafted by big name law firms to protect companies, but they are not necessarily protecting the people the platforms were created for. While people can understand that even tech companies need some time to build better systems to protect user privacy, people do not like being misled.

People are surprisingly forgiving when you are honest, but nobody likes a liar.