Who cares about privacy? Surprising facts from around the globe

Aug 27, 2015  · by

Cultural attitudes to privacy online.

Topics: Space

You’ve already heard how Germans have strict privacy laws, with Google Streetview blurring out more faces and places in Germany than anywhere else. And you know how differently people in the USA see things, giving up vast amounts of personal data to advertisers, so they can get better no-pay services online. Meanwhile Chinese internet users accept official monitoring and interventions in their online activity. Countries fall into simple “strict” or “loose” or “controlled” categories. Simple? Well, in fact it’s not so simple.

The fact is that Germans are less worried about privacy, because they trust that their strict laws are correctly enforced. While 44% of Germans are worried about online privacy, 90% or more of Indians, Brazilians and Spanish are worried, according to research by ComRes

Attitudes to privacy in different cultures

Privacy is seen differently in “old internet” countries, where online access has long been widespread compared to “new internet” countries, where mass internet access is more recent. Factors such as young v old and familiarity with online data breaches also play a part in shaping attitudes to privacy.

But there is also a cultural angle to online privacy. Those deeply-held and slow-to-change cultural characteristics are influencing attitudes in fast-developing internet privacy questions too.

Individuality and collectivism

In cultures like the USA, individuals expect to take responsibility for protecting their own privacy rather than see it as mainly a government or institutional responsibility. At individual level, Americans may exercise strict discipline towards privacy, with 93% of American adults saying that being in control of who can get information about them is important, according to ComRes. There is a correlation with societal levels of trust in big companies. Respect for those institutions is higher in Brazil, India and Spain, but on the other hand lower in skeptical UK, Australia, France and South Korea.

Enforcement of privacy regulations

While laws on privacy may be converging, there remains a wide divergence in how well the data protection laws are enforced. Individuals and institutions take the data protection obligations very seriously in Australia, for example, but in other regions the regulations are more loosely applied.

South Korea tried to implement a “real names policy” whereby internet portal users would have to show their real names online. The plan was based on the idea that citizens would behave well online in order to maintain face, associated with their real name. The policy eventually collapsed because of concerns about security, but the experiment was interesting. There have been trends away from anonymity in many countries, but enforcement of real names policies is unlikely to succeed in cultures like the Netherlands or USA where ideas are separated from the people expressing them and anonymous speech is a very relevant part of public dialogue.

Motivations to share personal data

On the surface, it seems like everyone is sharing personal information in a similar way on the big social networks of their own societies: Facebook, WeChat, vKontakte and so on. Usage levels and even some behaviour seems to follow global norms. However, more recent research shows that the motivations of users who share personal data online are very different. In some cultures, openness to strangers is less familiar, while networking outside the in-group can be a strong motivator in other cultures.

Online privacy can be at least as complex as traditional ideas about privacy. We need to navigate the same landscape of sensitivity and taboo as we do in our offline lives. When the Russian-owned search engine Yandex began offering services in Turkey, it found that it had the opposite problem compared to Google. It had blurred the faces of Turks appearing in its Streetview-equivalent service literally to protect the face of Turkish people, but in so doing had broken the taboo never to mess up the face of Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish nation, who appears in statue-form in photos of towns and villages up and down the country.

Being smart about privacy in other cultures

We’re discovering that the youngest generation of digital natives are not really loose in their attitudes to privacy. They are smarter. They have very precise ideas about what should be shared and where.

Similarly, cultures are developing their own culture-specific approaches to privacy. They are applying existing cultural beliefs in the new era of data protection. Check with a friendly native or an expert before you post and tag pictures of your contacts from other cultures. The attitude in foreign cultures to sharing data may be not what you expect in your own culture based on age or profession.

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