Peter Bazalgette, "Your Honour, It's About Those Facebook Photos of You at 20...," Observer (UK), May 20, 2007. Reproduced by permission.
Peter Bazalgette is nonexecutive chairman for Sony Pictures Television's United Kingdom production business.
When [leader of the United Kingdom's Conservative Party and prime minister as of May 2010] David Cameron's brush with drugs at Eton [College] was revealed earlier this year  he resolutely refused to comment. The Tory leader justified his stance with a simple phrase: 'Everyone deserves a private past.'
Not long before, another vice of the adolescent Cameron had been unearthed—his membership of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford. A photograph appeared of David and his fellow peacocks to prove it, only to disappear when the photographers selling the image were told how unfair bringing up the past could be. Cameron was at university in the 1980s, before the advent of MySpace, Bebo, Facebook and all the other confessional media that have mushroomed in the last five years.
A Generation with Little Privacy
Imagine how different it will be for the politicians of the future who are at school or university today. The bulk of them use their MySpace and Facebook entries for self-advertisement, social networking and the generally raw process of growing up and working out their identities. With the aid of these sites, they are the first generation who can tell you precisely how many 'friends' they have. They are also the first generation whose sexual adventures, drug taking, immature opinions and personal photographs are indelibly recorded electronically.
Can you truly delete entries from social networking sites with the confidence they no longer exist on a server somewhere? You cannot. And that is only your entry. Typically, the 'wall' on each site has more than a thousand postings from other users—random, careless remarks recorded for posterity. Indeed, as the drive intensifies by social networking sites to monetise their traffic, they will need to record and preserve the activities of their users with ever-greater accuracy. The sites have declared policies on privacy, but these mostly cover how and whether they use personal data for commercial purposes.
We are a mere three or four years into a wholly new phenomenon: enabled by technology, a generation is voluntarily surrendering its privacy on a hitherto unimaginable scale. I have carried out a highly unscientific straw poll of just one Facebook user. In a five-minute conversation, I asked her for specific instances of personal revelation that might come back to haunt her circle of friends. Here are the results: photographs of marijuana smoking, naked runs and pole dancing; joining anti-women and anti-immigration groups and campaigns to save hereditary peerages (all ironic, but who's to know that in the future?); extreme positions on Israel and Palestine; sexual relationships and confessions. And so it goes on, the normal social banter of students.
Until, that is, it's dug up some years later and given the Daily Mail treatment. Already, more astute employers are accessing this material to see what their applicants are really like.
Attitudes About Privacy
Voluntary self-advertisement of personal details is only part of the story. Recent publicity given to the phenomenon of 'cyberbullying' shows how new technology enables involuntary infringements of privacy, too. Examples where humiliating practical jokes and lewd exposés have been visited on teachers by pupils with video-enabled mobile phones were recently condemned by the Education Secretary. The Italian government took action following a spate of similarly distressing incidents. Among these were the filmed bullying of a disabled child and the sexual harassment of a female teacher. Mobile phones are now banned in Italian schools.
Two interesting issues arise from this explosion of personal electronic traffic. First, is there a fundamental shift taking place in attitudes to privacy? Whether led or merely enabled by the technology, is the famous 'right to be left alone' becoming an outmoded sentiment? If so, there would be profound implications for public policy. And second, even if this generation has a new attitude to privacy, what if they later change their mind? Could their consent subsequently be withdrawn or are the relevant technologies becoming uncontrollable?
To be attracted by self-exposure at a relatively early age does not mean you have no future right to privacy.
To try to gauge how this generation feels about privacy, I commissioned market research company YouGov to carry out a simple survey of attitudes to privacy. The responses it received from a sample group of 2,274 showed that the population as a whole remains very concerned by privacy and easily values it above such qualities as freedom of speech and open access. We also found that while 18- to 24-year-olds prize freedom of speech rather more highly than older generations, even within their own peer group 'privacy' and 'avoiding harm and offence' rate well above freedom of speech and open access.
So, despite the carefree enthusiasm with which some of the younger generation exploit social networking technology, when confronted with some of the dangers, they are almost as concerned as older age groups. I interpret this as a group who loves the powerful social networking that is now possible, but still has a clear sense of privacy. It relates less to a blanket desire for anonymity. We have seen from [television show] Big Brother that they are often happy to expose their relationships or, indeed, their flesh.
The Right to Future Privacy
But they have chosen to do this. My impression is that their idea of privacy is that it should be available if they want it. Some might argue that if you flaunt your private life, you surrender your future right to privacy. I disagree. To be attracted by self-exposure at a relatively early age does not mean you have no future right to privacy. You should be able to change your mind.
Indeed, with the way in which social networking is exploding in popularity among the younger generation, it is essential you should be able to change your mind. The teenagers chattering away online are media literate, but they are not media wise.
This takes us back to the difference between David Cameron at 20 and David Cameron at 40. How, then, should those who run these sites and legislators respond to this new situation?
The [United Kingdom's] Data Protection Act of 1998 was guided by eight principles of good data handling, one of which was that data should not be kept longer than necessary. This could be said to be a precept marked more in the breach than the observance. A new report from the Royal Academy of Engineering has an interesting suggestion: 'Postings to websites might be automatically destroyed after a certain period of time, unless the end user confirmed they wished to have the material retained.'
We need to monitor the attitudes of users—the 'self-advertisers'—in more depth to see if they are truly more open and less private than previous generations. The initial evidence is that they still have an innate sense of privacy. If so, social networking needs to be governed by the same body of law, custom and practice that is developing to protect privacy elsewhere. The key elements would be to increase media literacy, enable the withdrawal of consent and ensure that obsolete data can be effectively deleted.