Towards an exploration of cross-cultural factors in privacy online

Steve McRobb


At ETHICOMP 2005, Orito and Murata presented a paper that argued cogently for a different interpretation of the social meaning of privacy in a Japanese cultural context. They stated that many Japanese use the imported word for privacy “without clearly understanding its meaning” (Orito and Murata, 2005). In traditional Japanese culture, it would be regarded as anti-social for an individual to assert that they had a right to personal privacy. Furthermore, explicit statements (such as those that Westerners might expect from an organisation’s privacy policy) are routinely avoided, the preference being for implied forms of communication that allow both parties to form an understanding of each other without the embarrassment of direct attribution or acknowledgement.

A considerable body of literature exists on investigations into privacy online. This analyses the issues of concern from several perspectives. The topic is important for individuals (as consumers, employees, students, citizens, and so on) and for organisations that aim to provide services through, or to obtain profit from, online interaction with individuals in one or more of these roles. As individuals, we must assess the risks of exposing our personal data before engaging in online behaviour that involves this. Businesses and other organisations must strike a balance between maximising the amount of useful information that is collected and antagonising those who are described by that information (or other organisations who in some way represent those individuals). Positive benefits may be extracted from information about the individuals who do business with an organisation. On the other hand, there may be great disadvantage in acquiring a reputation for being too intrusive, or being too irresponsible with the information collected.

But all the preceding statements are made from within the relatively homogenous perspective of the Western liberal democracies (taken here to include Australia and New Zealand, but not such countries as Japan or Malaysia where the cultural heritage is very different). True, there is diversity within this region, and certainly many differences of opinion about the importance of privacy, what the issues are and how they should be addressed. Nevertheless most organisations and citizens in this domain share, due to certain linguistic and cultural commonalities, assumptions that may not exist in non-Western cultures (as Orito and Murata assert). Or, if they exist at all, they may take very different forms.

Relatively little attention has yet been paid to the differing meanings, values and behaviours associated with privacy in societies whose cultural compass points elsewhere than the West. Jarvenpaa and Tractinsky (1999) conducted a comparative study of consumer trust related to Internet shopping in Australia, Finland and Israel. But these are essentially all liberal Western democracies with their roots in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Most who have studied the cross-cultural questions in a more truly global sense have concentrated on theoretical and conceptual analyses. Zakaria, Stanton and Sarkar-Barney (2003) present a theoretical framework for integrating cultural values and privacy issues. Their paper aims to apply the framework to the design and implementation of IT applications that will be culturally sensitive, but empirical testing still lay in its future.

Privacy is not only important for ICT-enabled activities, and some authors range far beyond this terrain. Reinforcing Orito and Murata, Makoto and Tamura (2005) compare the general Japanese concept of privacy with its Western equivalent, while Krisana (2005) does a similar job from a Thai point of view. Ritsuko (2002) examines popular styles of housing in Japan and England and concludes that they embody different, culturally specific attitudes towards privacy.

Some who have conducted empirical investigations focused only on a single culture. Shalhoub (2006) analyses the privacy policies of a number of organisations in an Arab context, but these are all drawn from states within the Gulf area. Other empirical studies make explicit cross-cultural comparisons but are unable to separate cultural factors from other environmental factors. For example, Choi and Lee (2003) and Park and Jun (2003) both report on quantitative, empirical studies that compared online shopping behaviour and attitudes in Korea and in the US. Neither study was able to demonstrate any clear causal link between culture and the observed differences in attitude and behaviour.

Of course, it is unsurprising that cross-cultural aspects of privacy online have received relatively little attention. The affluent professional middle classes of the developed world have been the principal drivers for the spread of the Internet and e-Commerce, and also the first adopters of new services and channels of communication. It has been chiefly among this group that new online behaviours and attitudes have first emerged. But this picture is changing rapidly as many citizens of the majority world rush to connect to the Internet. In any case, there is little excuse for the prevailing, self-obsessed Western focus to continue to dominate.

This paper represents one small step towards filling a gap in what we know about how the concept of privacy is understood, and can be misunderstood, across cultural boundaries. It will aim to do this by reporting on the progress of a planned empirical investigation into British attitudes towards privacy online compared with a country from a contrasting cultural tradition (it is hoped this will be Japan). To an extent, this will build on the continuing survey of privacy policies reported previously at ETHICOMP (in 2004 and 2005). But the aim here is to significantly extend the scope of this work and to examine whether, and how, privacy policies are differently perceived in two cultures that have different understandings of the very nature of privacy, and of its social value. The project is expected to require collaboration between investigators in the UK and Japan (or whichever country is ultimately selected for the comparison), and the collaborative arrangements have not been established at the time of writing. It is very likely the research will continue beyond the date of the conference, but available findings will be reported as fully as time permits. The paper will also discuss the practical and methodological issues encountered in setting up and conducting such a project.