06/22/2010 07:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If We Don't Self-Regulate the Social Web, Someone Else Will

Excitement over the possibilities of the New can lead to exuberance, and exuberance--whether rational or irrational--can result in the kind of mistakes that stifle innovation. In social media, that moment has arrived. Our exuberance over the connections we can make with customers is prompting some companies to compromise their data security and privacy. The industry needs to take a step back now in order to ensure our ability to move forward later.

Consider the example of the nuclear power industry, where plant safety is analogous to social media's data privacy. Power plants were built to be safe, yet public concern mounted, boiling over when a major accident took place in 1979. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission stepped in and asked for major overhauls to power plant safety, making new plants prohibitively expensive. Not a single nuclear plant has been commissioned in the U.S. since.

A leak or accident in the arena of privacy and data security in social media would cause, quite rightfully, a consumer outcry. If the companies didn't respond quickly and appropriately, regulators would need to get involved. The regulations could be more Draconian than customers were requesting. So for the sake of a short-term business gain on the part of a few players, the entire industry could be hobbled.

In her recent blogs and speeches, Danah Boyd, Social Media Researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a Fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, makes the argument that privacy is not dead, even among kids. It's just different than we think. Privacy means user control. Users don't mind sharing their information with us--they're as interested in the exchange as we are. They just want to be the ones deciding which information they share.

As with any relationship, trust is key. And in this relationship, protecting customer information and preserving their choices about privacy is vital to maintaining that trust. The boundaries are evolving, and we don't know where they will eventually land, but we are all responsible for setting them together.

At first it sounds like an engineering question--privacy settings in software on web sites used by millions of people. But it's not an engineering question; it's a policy question. If companies set fair policies now, today, regulators won't have to impose restrictive policies later. Our vigilance will ensure that both companies and customers enjoy the freedoms of the social web for decades to come.