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ALRC: Young approach to privacy

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Cite as: (2007) 81(6) LIJ, p. 88


How young people perceive privacy is being considered by the Australian Law Reform Commission.

The Australian Law Reform Commission’s (ALRC) inquiry into privacy is looking at whether expectations of privacy, especially among the young, have changed with new technology.

The existing Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) is largely based on a previous ALRC inquiry, conducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The current inquiry is being conducted in a different environment, where technology has greatly changed the way in which we hold and exchange information, and a new generation of young people has emerged living and breathing that technology.

“Generation Y” – born between 1980 and 1994 – is described as an optimistic and idealistic generation.

The generation is sometimes referred to as the Net Generation, or the MySpace Generation, reflecting its adoption of technology to facilitate new modes of communication, whether speaking with the next door neighbour or friends around the globe.

Through daily blogs, posting of photographs (often unflattering or “sexy” photos), video-sharing, and social networking sites designed to enable a person to share information, many young people have extensive personal information about themselves available to anyone at the hit of a button.

In a 2006 survey of young Americans aged 18-24 years of age, 78 per cent indicated they have a personal website, webpage or blog and regularly participate in online communities such as MySpace or Facebook.[1] 

This same group indicated that it valued privacy, but that this was evenly weighed with the ease and convenience the Internet provides.

This participation in the online world is not necessarily inimical to privacy. The research suggests that Generation Y balances privacy and convenience concerns by taking personal responsibility for safe behaviour and self-censoring the type of personal information made available online.

For example, many of the social networking communities have rules which allow a person to “choose” the level of public availability of their profiles, and many choose to share only with friends given the appropriate designation.

Similarly, research in the US indicates that young Americans have greater concerns than those of older generations about government surveillance without warrants.[2] 

The difference between being blasé about one kind of privacy but being adamant about protecting another may seem illogical. However, the distinction seems to be based on control of the flow of information.

As part of its national consultations on privacy issues, the ALRC has held a series of workshops aimed at 12 to 25-year-olds and tested some of these ideas about privacy and young people. A special “Talking privacy” website aimed at young people also provides a forum for young people to have input on the issues.

What the ALRC has heard so far is that young people do value privacy, and have clear ideas on what sorts of information should be able to be kept private.

In particular, the handling of personal health information raises concerns. While there is no consensus on the age at which young people are entitled to confidentiality, most of the young people the ALRC has spoken to seem clear that at some stage in adolescence a person should have the right to consult a doctor in complete confidence, and expect that this will be kept private, even from well-meaning parents. Similarly, relationships with counsellors are seen as an area where complete privacy is desirable.

In the online area, the ALRC has encountered a range of views from young people about privacy.

Generally, there do not seem to be many concerns about “choosing” to put your personal information online. However, it seems that the possible consequences of posting in a global environment – such as being “Googled” by prospective employers – are not being fully considered by many young people, and are clearly not being taught in schools as part of the general computer education.

Online concerns are at their peak for young people when discussing how third parties – whether they be friends or schoolyard enemies – can easily put your personal information online without your permission.

Most young people accept that this is inevitable, and there is little you can do to stop this from happening. Some have gone as far as to say that by posing for a photo, they more or less consent to it being online. This is certainly a different approach to most older Australians who expect to have greater control over information and photographs, even when they are in the hands of other individuals.

This is not to say, however, that young people are completely unconcerned about the use of their information. While taking the pragmatic approach that “you can’t stop it” from happening in the first place, the young people the ALRC spoke to were keen to find and use solutions for having offensive content removed from the Internet on request.

The ALRC is looking to publish a discussion paper on the privacy inquiry with proposals for reform in August.

The public has an opportunity to comment on the proposals before the ALRC presents its final report to the Attorney-General of Australia in March 2008.

The ALRC website has all of the publications of the inquiry, and also provides a number of different ways to contribute personal or professional views on the issues and proposals under consideration.


Contributed by the AUSTRALIAN LAW REFORM COMMISSION. Contact the ALRC at GPO Box 3708, Sydney 2001, ph (02) 8238 6333, fax (02) 8238 6363, email info@alrc.gov.au website http://www.alrc.gov.au


[1] Greenburg Quinlan Rosner and Polimetrix, Youth Monitor: Coming of age in America part IV—The MySpace Generation (2006).

[2] J Berton, “The age of privacy: gen Y not shy sharing online – but worries about spying”, San Francisco Chronicle (online), 20 May 2006, see http://www.sfgate.com.

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