Privacy principles & online product design

Scoble posted an entry today about privacy on the web in the context of people search.

Privacy on the web is something that I think about at work every day. It’s an interesting subject – because each person is different, their life styles are different and their social circles are different. After talking to many privacy experts, conducting many focus groups this is what I have learned:

There are 3 kinds of people on the internet; if you are building an internet product about people, you need to know these 3 kinds so that you can have good policies in place to take care of each one of them.

1. Public People: these are the types that don’t mind sharing their phone number on their web site (yes, like Scoble). These are the types of people that have blogs, myspace profiles and don’t mind getting attention. These are also the guys that do ego-searches on Google and subscribe to Google alert’s on their name. Since they are so public by nature, you don’t need to worry about them 🙂 Just make sure you have the tools in place to moderate their exposure if and when they need it.

2. Private People: these are the types that do mind being exposed; these are the types that also pay phone companies to un-list them from phone books (it’s a sweet deal for phone book companies btw :)). They are smart enough to know the system to take care of themselves. In some extreme cases you find them paying monthly $ to companies like Identity Sweep to “keep track of internet” to protect their identity. When you are designing a product, keep these guys at the center of your design. Privacy control tools are not just enough for these folks. So, what makes a big difference? Policy! Make sure you have right defaults in place, for example. As long as you keep these guys happy, you are good to go.

3. Public Private People: these are the people that think they are private but their information is exposed in all public places. And these are the types that are private in nature but don’t know what’s out there on the web about them in public domain (now this can be due to a couple of reasons: a. they genuinely don’t know – such as my grand ma, who does not know how to use internet, but her address is listed in phone book and she is listed on every white-pages site on the web; b. they genuinely think they are safe online – such as many many Americans that are un-suspectingly clicking a check-box while shopping online, whose fine-print reads it’s OK to share their information for commercial purposes). Some of them for sure will get a shock of their life if they see what’s out there available on the internet freely for millions of others to see. Now, if you are designing a product, just make sure you build a community that makes it hard to abuse the system; and of course, if you can reach out to them and educate them about privacy and their life online, its even better.

So, its all about tools, policy and the community that matter if you are designing a consumer product online.

Having said all that, new search engines like Spock don’t bother me much with respect to privacy on the web. I suspect they aggregate content that’s already available and make it easy to get information about you that otherwise can be found using a bunch of existing services like Google, Wink, ZoomInfo, Zaba and Intelius. So what am I worried about? The sites that create content about people – these sites worry me a lot. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for creating content but the sites that lack tools, policy and the community to protect the privacy of their users worry me (I can show you a number of examples in this category).

And finally, yes, I work at a social networking company that aim to create content about people;
and I guarantee you, protecting our user’s privacy is at the center of our product’s design – but – if you have great ideas about privacy principles in online product design, I would love to hear from you.