'Parks And Recreation,' Facebook and The New Privacy

Tuesday's episode of Parks And Recreation raises an important question about Facebook and privacy.

If you tuned into Parks And Recreation Tuesday night, you were treated to an episode where social media startup Gryzzl attempts to win over the hearts and minds of its  new neighbors in the fictional town of Pawnee with boxes full of gifts, delivered via Amazon-esque drones.

The problem was that the gifts were perfect -- too perfect. Gryzzl had been data mining every interaction the residents of Pawnee were having online and custom-tailoring their gifts to suit their exact interests. This didn't go over so well, even as Gryzzl retorts that it did nothing that wasn't perfectly legal. And besides, wasn't everybody happy with the result?

The episode culminates in a speech given on a public access court show, where character Ben Wyatt (played by Adam Scott) delivers a short argument on how Gryzzl may not be breaking the law, but it obviously knows it's not doing something good or else it would have been more forthright about the whole data mining thing.

"A person should not have to have an advanced law degree to avoid being taken advantage of by a multibillion dollar company. You should be upfront about what you're doing and allow people the ability to opt out," Wyatt proposes.

Don't worry, Computerworld hasn't become a TV review site (follow me on Twitter for my TV opinions). Nor am I suggesting that the world look to Tuesday night television for policy advice (though you could do worse than Parks And Recreation, which has won a bunch of Emmys -- and how many Emmys has FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler won, huh).

But the cast and crew of Parks And Recreation hit on an important idea -- not a new idea, necessarily, but one that's reverberating around the web and that needs to be formally addressed.

We already know that privacy is the new killer app, and that events like last year's iCloud hack and the Target data breach are turning security from a nice-to-have to a major competitive differentiator.

There's another shift happening, too: Facebook, it is generally accepted, will never stop data mining the heck out of its users, because it makes a lot of money, and companies that make a lot of money tend to like the idea of continuing to make a lot of money. Users, who like the benefits and connections that Facebook brings to their lives, aren't going anywhere, no matter how exploitative the means. The same goes for Google and basically any other "free" service on the Internet. Or look at Uber, which got into trouble recently for being straight-up creepy and pretty threatening towards women thanks to all the data it scrapes -- but that same data is a valuable source for civic planners. It's a give-and-take.

Creepiness is just a fact of life for people living the plugged-in lifestyle circa 2015.

Which is where Parks And Recreation comes in. What people want, more than ever, isn't necessarily for Google to stop being creepy; people like personal data-mining services like Google Now, which can tell you when you have to leave the restaurant to catch a delayed flight without requiring your intervention at all.

No, what people want instead now is visibility -- the insight to know what data, exactly,  is being scraped, and the option to opt out. The choice of what to make public and what to keep private is paramount. Call it the new privacy if you have to call it anything at all.

It's not about keeping things secret, because we know that Americans say they want privacy but act like they don't. It's about knowing what gets shared and to whom and  putting users in control.

We see it in the fight against online harassment, and in Facebook's own ongoing efforts to streamline its data sharing policies into something readable by a human. We see it in the perpetual skepticism around Uber and in the popularity of apps like Snapchat, even in the wake of hacking scandals.

It's not about the right to be offline, or the right not to be tracked, or the right to be forgotten. It's about the right to be online without being pushed into harm's way by forces beyond our control. It's about the right to opt out.

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