There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a massive shift in how we consume information and how we communicate with each other.  And there is also no doubt that those under 20 who grew up not knowing any different will have a very different kind of comfort around the online universe. 

Defining Online Privacy

Privacy is in the eyes of the beholder – for the very young, there is a tendency to continue to engage in frequent, open online interactions while asserting privacy rights around those online comments.  For many people over a certain age (50? 60? 30?), this is totally ridiculous.  You post it and it’s public.  Yet a typical Boomer would be appalled if someone listened into his or her conversation at a restaurant or at a public fountain. 

When so much of our personal life’s interactions are online, why not start to carve out the same sort of privacy we demand offline? The permanency of the written record only makes it more essential to think critically about what to do with all that information, not to just throw our hands up and give up.

The “public” status update may be online, but does that entitle the universe to act on that information to harm me, particularly when I’ve signaled my intention to maintain privacy over certain information through my privacy settings?  Whether or not it’s easy or possible to access and act on information, should we not set some re-defined, socially acceptable (and legal) parameters around online information?

Online Privacy in the Workplace

This is the core of the privacy dilemma that employers face.  In most US States, there is simply no expectation of privacy in the workplace, so employers have more flexibility around how to act upon their employee’s online information. 

In Canada and Europe, however, employees have varying degrees of a right to privacy on their workplace computer and in their online life generally.  Employers do not have any inherent right to read an employee’s Facebook page and discipline them for unpleasant or unpopular comments, subject to various legal tests such as the degree of economic harm on the employer’s business. 

It is legal in Canada, therefore, to be a total jackass online, and it is difficult to terminate an employee because of their online life, unless your employee is otherwise breaking the law or an enforceable workplace policy, bad-mouthing the employer’s business or exercising poor behavior that specifically intersects with the job’s reputational management concerns (e.g. a firefighter being sexist or a daycare worker writing hateful comments about children). 

Freedom of expression is, after all, a constitutional right in Canada.

Online Privacy in the Modern Economy

I anticipate that the generation growing up with the online world as simply an extension of their physical world – and not a public soapbox with different rules than in a restaurant or by the public fountain – will continue to carve out privacy rights in a way that makes sense to them and the online aspects of their daily, hourly lives.

Many proclaim that privacy is dead and we may as well either get over it or go off the grid.  The latter is not an option if you want to participate in the economy.  But giving up all privacy must surely bristle against human nature. 

The Desire for Privacy Won’t Die

My unscientific sense is that most of us inherently crave some amount of privacy.  Whether it’s to shield our imperfections from friends and family, to explore business or artistic ideas quietly, or to develop a potential romance without everyone staring and critiquing, the desire for privacy will not die anytime soon. 

We just have to figure out how to nurture and assert privacy parameters in the modern economy and online world.  And employers will have to continue to pay attention to this massive shift happening beyond the workplace to figure out how to handle expectations of privacy in the modern workforce.

I’d love to hear from you if your workplace has figured out the balance, or if you want to brainstorm about privacy policies that might help ease the way to the modern, online, e-information packed economy.