Privacy? Fuggedaboutit!


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Back in ancient times when the Earth’s crust had not fully hardened and bulletin board services (BBSs) were bleeding edge, I got hooked on The Well (www.well.com), a vibrant BBS with an unusual premise—no anonymous users. Subscribers had a persistent username, and, in fact, people were encouraged to meet face-to-face, in order to connect each username with a real person. The idea was to encourage deep conversations and to eliminate at least some of the trolling and flamefests that erupt in some virtual communities. A corollary to the principle of no anonymous postings was “you own your own words” (or YOYOW in Well-ese); you are responsible for what you say, and no one can port your words outside the discussion where you posted them.

Recently, though, that idea of YOYOW seems to have fallen out of favor, at least in my small part of the world. Here are a few personal examples:

First, I was attending a private week-long focus group, and a passionate debate erupted among several attendees. One participant recorded the debate and then posted it on his (public) blog, which then prompted a long discussion in response to the original debate. One of the speakers who was recorded objected; the other speaker linked to the recording on his own blog.

In another instance, last December I gave a talk on a panel at the Online Information conference in London. One of the other panelists recorded my session and posted it to his blog. He let me know about it after he’d posted it, with a somewhat sheepish, “I should probably have asked first.” I’m still not sure what I think of it, although I have a link to the recording from my website.

And I’ve often had my presentations blogged, including a verbatim transcription of my slides. Yes, there are times when I’d rather not post my presentations, particularly if I think the content will soon be dated.

In a well-publicized case, Virgin Mobile was recently sued for having used a photo of a teenager from Flickr for an ad campaign, portraying the teen in a negative light. Virgin’s response to the suit has been that since the photographer included a creative commons license to his photos allowing commercial use of the photos, there was no need to get permission from the subject of the photograph. And, of course, there was the kerfluffle over Google Maps’ Street View, which has had the unfortunate ability to immortalize people leaving porn theaters, picking their noses, and standing naked at their front windows.

To come back to The Well’s YOYOW, exactly what “words” do we “own”? I still expect that what I’ve written won’t be appropriated by others without my permission, or at least without attribution. (And when that does happen, a polite email has always corrected the, er, “flattery” of plagiarism.) Until recently, I had expected that public presentations are not automatically available for republishing or rebroadcasting, but I have accepted that apparently this is information that wants to be free, to use the old web meme. And as long as no one is directly profiting from exporting my presentations, I choose not to object. It is possible that a conference organizer who does profit from my speaking at an event might object to recording my sessions and posting them. But, to my thinking, Virgin Mobile’s use of a photo from Flickr goes beyond the pale, particularly since it was used in a way that made fun of the person being depicted.

The old model of “privacy through obscurity” disappeared about the time that consumer-generated web content took off, much to the shock and dismay of the teenagers who learned that their parents could find their profiles on Friendster or MySpace. Much as we would like to imagine that our impassioned contributions to alt.politics.marijuana were only read by fellow travelers, we’ve been outed by Google Groups, and we can assume that the next time we’re interviewing for a job, the interviewer will have read all about our views.

We may already have arrived at a general expectation that anything we do or say outside the confines of our homes (or any web content that we create ourselves) could appear anywhere on the web. For starters, that means that we really do have to be mindful of the chance that anything we say could appear on the front page of The New York Times. And I wonder how this will change how we evaluate information on the web. Perhaps the new gauge of authenticity is whether or not the source was aware of being recorded.