‘The more you disclose, the more you are rewarded,’ says Boing Boing co-editor

Privacy and social media are two of the central concerns for Cory Doctorow, the 40-year old Canadian blogger, journalist, and science fiction author who serves as co-editor of the blog Boing Boing and is incredibly concerned about the forces that are lining up against privacy.

He calls himself a “cyber-optimist” and spoke to Britain’s The Guardian newspaper following his TedX talk, where he served up some timely and thought-provoking ideas.

Future generations

Doctorow wants parents to acknowledge that “your kids will have lots of unsupervised internet use.” There is no way around that with the plethora of connected devices that are coming on to the market. Bearing that in mind, “the only thing you can do to keep them safe in their use of the internet is to instill good values and good sense.”

He contends that most parents threaten their children over their internet use by “spying on them” and their online habits and that we are teaching them to expect surveillance as the norm. But actually what we want to teach them is that “privacy is important and valuable. and you teach them that by not spying on them, which in turn teaches them not to be spied on.” Teach them not to be spied on.

Hopefully, “by the time they get to Facebook, they have some sense of why they should take counter-measures” before they “start haemorraghing information online”.

Social Network strategy

Doctorow speculated that the early social networks, like Friendster used a strategy of “negative reinforcement to get you to disclose more and more information about yourself.” While he acknowledges that there is no evil master plan to enslave the globe, he believes that subsequent networks have just refined that model further and further.

“The way they work is that the more you disclose about your life, the more the people who matter to you reward you with attention. And that’s a really powerful force for encouraging you to go on disclosing information. You are disclosing in service to a business model that cashes in the material of our social lives and trades it for pennies.”

He sees education as being the key to fighting back, insisting that the “most powerful mechanism we have for securing the privacy of individuals, is for individuals to care about their privacy and to think that it is not a lost cause”.

The Role of the State

“States have to stop acting like the internet is just a playground for extracting data willy-nilly.” They need to act responsibly, so that organisation “start acting like gathering info on the internet only happens in the most narrow and closely judicially supervised circumstances that we know about”.

The situation at the moment is that ISP’s currently log all the information that they can. Right now they are required to log information and keep it for ever. Doctorow believes that “they should be liable if they lose logs and there should be financial incentives for them to log as little data as possible”.


Doctorow is no fan of Facebook. He doesn’t use it and during his TedX talk, he said he thought it was “bloody awful”. While he believes that it has been useful in helping organise activist causes, particularly in the Middle East, he wants to “treat the fact that Facebook was used as a bug that we need to fix. Because it’s not suited for that.”

Part of his problem with Facebook revolves around the fact that “Facebook doesn’t care or not whether the people on it are safe. Facebook only cares when that affects their bottom line. The safety and security of activists is not a design consideration going forward.”

The way to deal with it is education. “What we need to do, as privacy activists, is educate people that Facebook has merits in terms of ease of use, and demerits in terms of the consequences of it being mined by authorities.”

At the same time we should be “building the tools that will take over from Facebook”, and he is very excited by the fact that “both of those things are happening”. After all, as he mentioned during his TedX talk, “we also don’t want kids to stop social networking online, we want them to fight isolation with networks, but in a way that is measured and that has disclosure at the beginning and not at the end.”

Ultimately, this pioneering technology optimist acknowledges that “networking technologies are useful for activists, let’s build some that are fit for purpose”.



Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights. sign up

Welcome to Memeburn

Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights.