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Consumer Confidential: Facebook shows how privacy is passe

By David Lazarus, Los Angeles Times –

Welcome to the post-privacy era.

What’s most striking about Facebook’s initial public offering isn’t that it values the 8-year-old company at up to $100 billion, or that this will be the biggest-ever IPO for an Internet firm.

What’s most striking is that Facebook is serving up to investors the prospect of 845 million users (read: consumers) worldwide being a captive market for businesses looking to sell them stuff.

And in a twist that would have been unimaginable before social media took the Net by storm, we’ve become willing partners in the devaluing of our privacy.

It’s not just that we no longer feel outraged by repeated incursions on our virtual personal space. We now welcome the scrutiny of strangers by freely sharing the most intimate details of our lives on Facebook, Twitter and other sites.

In 1999, Silicon Valley bigwig Scott McNealy famously declared that “you have zero privacy anyway — get over it.”

But he was ahead of his time. Before social media redefined the online experience, privacy remained an important consideration for Internet users. The Federal Trade Commission said it was one of consumers’ biggest concerns.

That’s no longer the case, at least for a growing number of netizens.

“There’s no question that we’ve seen a shift,” said Donna Hoffman, co-director of the University of California-Riverside’s Sloan Center for Internet Retailing. “It’s a bargain. People are saying that ‘in exchange for my need to put myself out there, I’ll give up whatever privacy I used to feel was important.’ ”

This need to put yourself out there — call it the new exhibitionism — is the driver here. It’s the wellspring for all social media growth, a craving to both share and be shared with.

As Hoffman sees it, older Internet users (those over 30, say) still tiptoe a bit when it comes to Facebook and its ilk. Such people fiddle with their privacy settings and try to keep a lid on how much personal information is spilling online.

Younger users, on the other hand, can’t get enough social-media sauce on their cyber-sandwich. They view this technology not as an intrusion but as a life enhancement.

“They think that if they reveal all this stuff about themselves, others will be able to tell them what else they’d like and want,” Hoffman said.

Think Netflix. You watch a movie via the company’s online streaming service, and the next time you log on, Netflix is suggesting other films you might enjoy. Amazon does the same thing with books.

In the post-privacy era, that sort of taste-making is seen as a good thing. I declare online that I like pizza, and you tell me where I can score a superior slice. I say I drive a Ford, and you suggest I give Toyota a whirl.

Meanwhile, marketers are salivating over this treasure trove of once-hard-to-get information. Suddenly I’m seeing ads online for pizza restaurants and car dealers.

And based on my other stated preferences, perhaps I’m soon receiving messages and emails from merchants with an uncanny sense of the kind of clothes I like, or the sports I watch, or the vacations I enjoy.

“We’re definitely on the cusp of a new world when it comes to connecting online,” said Amber Yoo, a spokeswoman for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego advocacy group. “People are only just starting to realize the ramifications of all this sharing.”

She cited the case of Ashley Payne, a Georgia high school teacher who posted photos of herself on Facebook enjoying beer and wine while on vacation in Europe. After the parent of one of her students later complained, Payne was forced to quit her job.

Yoo observed that search engines now include people’s Facebook and Twitter posts in their results.

“Google someone’s name, and you can see things they’ve posted online,” she said. “That can have serious consequences.”

Facebook is no stranger to privacy issues. The FTC accused the company of deception and violations of federal law last year by telling users it would keep their information under wraps “and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public.”

Although Facebook settled that case, it said in its IPO filing that future privacy snafus “could cause us to incur substantial costs or require us to change our business practices in a manner materially adverse to our business.”

And those practices are extensive. Facebook says it unleashes “billions” of ads on users every day based on “the information they have chosen to share.”

The question is: How big a deal is that for people?

While many of us (myself included) still take our privacy seriously, it’s clear that an ever-growing number of Net users either don’t fret too much about safeguarding their personal info or see the abandonment of privacy as the price of admission to a bright, shiny theme park of online attractions.

Facebook is counting on that — as are those who will end up investing in the company. Because without our complacency and complicity, social media have little to offer and little chance of making a buck.

No worries. Privacy is so 20th century. Get over it.

Better yet, post something online. What could be the harm?

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