Monday, January 28, 2008

Online privacy - are our standards changing?

This past spring, I, along with Larry Timbs and Will Atkinson presented a paper to the Newspaper Association of America dealing with the ethical problems that having newspaper archives digitized and online can raise -- things that were not issues in the era when archives fell under what in legal circles was known as "practical obscurity."

(Here is a summary column I wrote on it. The paper has now been published in Grassroots Editor and can be found here (PDF).)

During the research, Emily Nussbaum wrote in New York magazine about an emerging generation for whom privacy was perhaps a bit of a nostalgic concept and for whom the operative method was now to simply deal with it, accept that invasions would be part of your life and move on. (That's an over-simplification, and you should read the article.)

Then recently I came across this post by Zach Echola, a media producer in the upper Midwest, in which he talks about his attitude toward the privacy dangers online. Essentially, he throws it back at those who would find the information:

The real voyeurs are those employers and companies that pry into our online lives unprovoked and unnecessarily.

Much of what is on the Internet is not intended for a mass audience and never reaches that–or any–audience.

It is delusional to think that everything that happens online has any relevance beyond its creator’s ego. In the case of drunken Facebook photos between friends, the intent is for other friends to view the photos, not anyone else. ...

Are people really so dumb that they can’t differentiate work from play on the Web? I think not. And I think there’s a generation of kids coming into the work force with a basic understanding of this. ...

The greatest flaw in thinking about the Internet, is thinking that bloggers (including me), Facebook users or people who post photos to flickr want mass attention and fame. We don’t (or at the very least, we don’t expect it). We target our message, whether it be photos of a night out with friends or posts about the Internet, to those few people who might perchance stumble across a slice of our digital selves (key word: slice). We are outliers. We are all Chris Anderson’s Tail.

15 minutes of fame has given way to being famous to 15 people. Mass media is dying, if it isn’t already dead. Get over yourselves.

Isn’t privacy a two-way street?

Is this a naive cry in the wilderness, or are we really seeing a defiant shift here to perhaps a time when the rules have changed and privacy is seen as an almost quaint notion that is your responsibility, not mine?

(In our paper, we suggested there might even be a legal basis for this shift - a theory that turns media into custodians of the information with a duty not to disclose, rather than simply distributors. It's one of those ideas floating out there that journalists need to pay closer attention to, as they should be doing with much of modern information policy.)

Lots to think about. What do you think?

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At 2/15/08, 1:00 PM, Anonymous Zac Echola said...

You might also enjoy this recent article by Clay Shirky, who explains what I was trying to get at much better than I can:

Audience, though, is just one pattern a group can exist in; another is community. Most amateur media unfolds in a community setting, and a community isn't just a small audience; it has a social density, a pattern of users talking to one another, that audiences lack. An audience isn't just a big community either; it's more anonymous, with many fewer ties between users. Now, though, the technological distinction between media made for an audience and media made for a community is evaporating; instead of having one kind of media come in through the TV and another kind come in through the phone, it all comes in over the internet.

At 2/15/08, 3:13 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

I think you -- and Clay -- both put it well.

But the question still remains: Should there be and can there be private spaces in a public digital sphere?

Just because you put it out there and don't mean it for my eyes, can you label it private if it is in a public space? It would be like putting up a billboard and telling me I can't look because the message is private.

OK, maybe that's too extreme. So it's like the cell phone user who annoys everyone around him or her who can hear the private details of the conversation. Now, a certain amount of civility would have us ignore what we hear, even though it is in plain earshot. But suppose that cell phone user suddenly gives out a juicy tip on a stock. Do you think everyone will ignore it?

No. And if it happens enough, that slowly erodes the private sphere.

So I'm not sure I'm ready to buy the argument that just because something is in a "community" it is private just because you say it is if the community also is accessible to the public. At least not now, I'm not. I think the sender still has some responsibility, not just the receiver.

But as noted, I think we are seeing a shift, and it will be interesting to see how it evolves. Even as we pointed out in our paper, there has already been some legal discussion (about a decade old, now) about shifting the standard or privacy to a duty not to disclose by the holder of the information (which, conceivably could be everyone around that cell phone caller -- an imperfect example, but give me leave for now)


At 2/15/08, 5:06 PM, OpenID echola said...

I see where you're coming from and it's a problem that's always bothered me, too.

Because you put something online (in public) with the intent for it to be targeted to a small group of people doesn't mean it won't shift to another community or scale to mass media. Obviously that's a possibility and people really should understand that.

My problem comes when someone (like media or employers) make judgment calls on that content without considering the original context.

I think it's particularly frightening that an employer (or prospective employer) can and will look at, say, a juicy dating service profile to judge the employee (or prospective employee). Someone has to draw a line. I liken those actions to an employer peeking into a window from the street. Sure you can do it, but you shouldn't. It has no bearing on the original objective. And it's just plain creepy.

From a media perspective, I think we have to be very, very careful not to lose this context when we pry into content that wasn't meant for us.

Using your cell phone example, we wouldn't print the stock tip based on what we overheard, but for some reason when it's online we treat it all as though it's up for grabs and legitimate, with the argument that it's in "the public sphere." We're almost too literal when it comes to online sources and that's unfortunate.


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