Social Technology

Facebook, Google, and Privacy in the Cloud

As Mark Zuckerberg's deep-held desire to tell the whole world about your relationship status becomes ever clearer, four Democratic Senators have written him a letter with a few complaints and a few requests about Facebook's privacy policies.  Specifically, they're concerned about information that can no longer be kept private, information that is stored indefinitely by third parties (advertisers), and the default privacy settings which are very, very open, allowing partner sites to personalize their offerings to creepy levels.

I'll admit that I've given some thought to shutting down my Facebook account, simply because their convoluted and constantly-shifting privacy policies feel invasive and make it very difficult even to understand who can see what.  Facebook is pretty dominant in social networking market, and their privacy problems (Gawker has a roundup of the problems here, and the EFF covers the most recent changes) are to be taken seriously. But it's only a part of a bigger conversation about how, in our networked, information-rich society, we will balance privacy with security, with free speech, and with our desire for a personalized, responsive world.

Facebook GoogleWith all the information about us that is now available online in social networks, government databases, and cloud computing resources (like webmail, web-based documents, etc.), the practical expectation of any kind of obscurity or anonymity is increasingly suspect. Last week, Google shed some light on just how un-private our information is, by revealing the number of government requests for user information they had received by country. Brazil and the U.S. topped the list, with each government making more than 3,000 requests in the second half of 2009 (usually for law enforcement). A decade ago, much of this information could only have been discovered via wiretap-- which requires judicial intervention-- and now it's all available the government, upon request.

A big part of the problem here is legal ambiguity. The most up-to-date law on the books is the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) which, though forward-looking at the time, is hilariously out of date now. In 1986, the only e-mail was MCI Mail, which allowed you to download mail directly computer, whereupon it was deleted from their servers. Now, we're living in a world in which much of our e-mail is stored in remote servers indefinitely.  Needless to say, nobody saw this coming in 1986, and now all our data-- in Gmail, in Facebook, and elsewhere in the cloud-- is legally unprotected.  Put another way, it's highly ambiguous who owns your e-mail: it might be you, but it might just as easily be Google or Yahoo. Fortunately, there are people trying to answer these questions, particularly the individuals, institutions, and companies behind Digital Due Process.

So when the government comes knocking on Google or Facebook's door, how much information should Google provide about you?  How much should they be allowed to provide?  Does the government need a warrant? How much are we entitled to know about these activities?  Can Google be held responsible for user content they host-- as in the recent case in Italy? What about the ISPs, like Comcast and Verizon-- To what degree are they responsible for retaining data about where you go on the internet? To what degree are they allowed to retain this data?

These questions of "intermediary liability" will dominate the privacy debate in the coming years. On balance, I'm of the firm belief that this flood of information is a boon. A more data- and information-rich world is a better world. But we'll need to manage the flood in a way that upholds our Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure and maintains our right to privacy. For better or worse, we've probably lost a degree of privacy that we won't be getting back-- but really Mark, must you tell the whole world about my heartbreak?

UPDATE: Check out a recent post by Melody on Transcapitalist in which she rounds up a recent win, a loss, and a tie in the effort by intermediaries like Yahoo, Google, and the ISPs to avoid liability. It sounds to me like mostly good news, in that the government seems inclined to think that they ought to have a warrant if they're asking intermediaries for your data.  Even if they don't actually need one.

Twitter and Us

A few weeks back, I wrote about how we'll share content-- video, music, photo, text, etc.-- as social technology evolves, and I made the point that among our primary validators will be our friends.  I'd like to expand that a little, to say that, already, our primary validators-- the people who we let tell us what's worth looking at-- are individuals, rather than institutions.

In the past, for example, newspapers editors were the people who decided what was important, and it was the brand of the newspaper that lent credibility to their recommendations.  In the online, socially networked world, in which we all have incredible new capabilities to personalize the content we see, the validators are increasingly individuals, and it's the individual's brand that people are drawn to.  You might read Ezra Klein, but not the Washington Post; you might follow Alec Ross on Twitter, rather than reading what's being written about the State Department; and you might hang on Ashton Kutcher's every musing. It's all about individual people.

All this is to say: my Twitter handle, @GlobalMobileNDN, has felt increasingly irrelevant and out of step.  So I'm switching exclusively to my personal Twitter handle, @swdp. I've done a little switcheroo, so if you follow @GlobalMobileNDN, you'll now be following @swdp.  If not, I hope you'll become a follower!

Sharing Content in the FUTURE

The internet is a very disorganized place. I think our children and grandchildren will laugh at us for (among many other things) even trying to bushwhack our way through this chirping, hissing, dripping jungle of data, media, networks-within-networks, and kittens doing adorable things. The next truly killer app will be the one that is able to organize content, suss out what matters and what matters to you, and deliver it to you on a silver platter (or on a lunch tray, or in the Stanley Cup, or however you want it served).

The big question that follows is how, exactly, will content-- written, visual, audio, etc.-- be sorted and organized? Who will be the decider? Will the New York Times editorial board bestow the label of true and important? Will Google's algorithms sort items based on myriad criteria to allow the relevant to rise to the top? Will billions of netizens vote and decide? Who knows.

Media JungleHere's what I do think is true: In dealing with the oceans of media and content, perhaps the most valuable validators will be our friends. They'll share links, photos, videos, blog posts, quotes, quips, and other stuff they like with you, their friend, and you will share back with them. We already do this of course, through e-mail and IM, status message and Tweet, RSS, Blog, Buzz, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook. But it's fragmented, it's disorganized, and it's not very well integrated.

A recent article by Marisa Meltzer at the American Prospect wrote about blogging/sharing platform Tumblr, which gives users a slick, easy way to share content-- original or not.  She aptly describes it as a tool for "curating" the web-- for picking out and sharing what matters to you, and ignoring the rest. I've experimented with a number of blogging platforms over the years, and Tumblr is the one that feels most relevant to the moment we're in now: distilling simplicity from the pandemonium.

So is Tumblr the future of content sharing on the web?  Well, no, not exactly. I think we're gravitating toward something that melds Tumblr's simplicity, ease of use and customizability with much of Google Reader's functionality, and then ties it together with Facebook's network. Google and Facebook are both working hard to develop the killer content-sharing platform, but Facebook still feels clunky, and Google Buzz is the worst of all worlds.

But it was just 25 years ago that the first .com was registered.  Fifteen years ago, Netscape changed the internet.  And five years ago, nobody had heard of a Twitter.  So I won't go any further in my speculation about how we'll be sharing-- or even what we'll be sharing-- five years from now.

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