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With the growth of social media and other online communities, online social interactions have become an important part of daily life. This has led to increasing concerns about online privacy in the context of e-commerce. On today’s Internet, privacy needs differ from those in traditional e-commerce due to their focus on interactions among online peers. In timely recent work, HKUST’s Yan Xu and colleagues offer an important expansion of the concept of Internet privacy. They move away from the literature’s earlier focus on vendors’ use of personal factual information to consider peers’ behavior with respect to diverse self-shared and peer-shared information.

“Social interactions on the modern internet are different from earlier commerce-focused internet interactions in ways that are consequential to the way we conceptualize privacy concerns,” the researchers tell us. “As such, the expansion of the domain of digitized social interactions on the modern internet necessitates a reexamination and extension of the conceptual domain of internet privacy.” Through an examination of the literature, the authors identified and empirically validated new dimensions of privacy in today’s online social context.

Their novel conceptualization, peer privacy concern, is defined as “the general feeling of being unable to maintain functional personal boundaries in online activities as a result of the behavior of online peers.” It consists of the following four dimensions: peer-related information (control over the sharing of personal information), psychological (control over information received from others), virtual territory (control over others’ interactions with one’s online content), and communication (control over direct online conversations).

After performing an extensive survey of privacy scales in the literature and conducting focus groups with Facebook users, the authors developed a scale to measure the above dimensions of peer privacy concern. This initial scale was refined through input from other researchers, a pilot study with Facebook users, and two-wave surveys. Next, the scale was validated through a battery of tests that included covariance-based structural equation modeling and confirmatory factor analysis.

Finally, two new samples were used to cross-validate the scale and test its performance against other privacy concern scales in the literature. Importantly, the authors note that “simply changing the wording of previous privacy concern scales fails to fully capture privacy concerns in an online social networking context.”

This new conceptualization of peer-related privacy concerns and the accompanying measurement scale advances “understanding of the nature, causes, consequences, and mitigation of privacy issues emanating from the behavior of peers,” say the authors. Moreover, the revelation of the multidimensional nature of peer-related online privacy opens new avenues for researchers to explore each dimension and its antecedents and consequences.

Practically, online platforms can use the new conceptualization of peer-related online privacy to better address users’ privacy concerns. Governments can also use this new conceptualization to formulate laws that address online privacy threats. “With an improved conceptual and quantitative means of capturing users’ privacy concerns,” the researchers conclude, “platform providers and governments can implement fine-tuned policies, mechanisms, and tools that target specific dimensions of privacy threats, thus creating a more desirable online social environment.”