Ethics and Privacy in the Digital Age

[fr] Même si tout le contenu numérique que nous produisons court le risque de se retrouver un jour sur l'internet public, cela ne veut pas dire pour autant qu'il est acceptable de rendre public des informations qui ne le sont pas.

En l'occurrence, les réseaux sociaux comme Facebook permettent uniquement aux amis ou contacts d'un utilisateur d'avoir accès à leur profil. On n'y pense souvent pas, mais de plus en plus, ce qu'on peut voir sur le web dépend de qui nous sommes, et des relations (enregistrées) que l'on entretient avec d'autres utilisateurs.

Il convient donc d'être vigilant, sous peine de commettre des erreurs diplomatiques. Un ami à moi a ainsi rendu public aux 10'000 lecteurs d'IBcom une partie de mon profil Facebook, en illustration d'un article qu'il a écrit. Pas de gros désastre heureusement, mais s'il m'avait demandé, j'aurais tout de même fait un peu le ménage avant qu'il fasse sa saisie d'écran.

Over the last year, I’ve repeatedly asked for finer privacy control in the social tools I’m using (see here, here, here, here and here).

To summarize, tools need to let users add structure to their social networks, which in turn will allow privacy management of data made available in or through the tool: “let people I tagged X see everything, let people I tagged Y see this and that, and let people I tagged Z see everything apart from that.”

If you think of how relationships and social networks function offline, this makes perfect sense: some people are part of your friends circle, some people are close friends, some people are co-workers, some people are acquaintances, others are business contacts, judo pals, people you meet up with to play cards. And you don’t say the same things about yourself to all those people.

Your “social network” is not homogeneous. It’s a collection of little sub-communities (which can be as small as one person), with fuzzy edges, overlapping, ever-changing. Why on earth an online social network should place all the people I’m connected to on one level (or even two, or three levels) is beyond me.

Were getting there (but way too slowly). Pownce and Viddler allow you to tag your contacts and use those tags to control privacy (though with interface issues). Facebook, Flickr, and probably various others don’t allow you to tag your contacts, but do provide a few (insufficient) levels of privacy. Twitter lets you choose if you want to protect your updates.

What I’m getting to is that in today’s web of social tools, what you get to see is more and more personalized. And the information you can access about other people is often the result of your relationship to those people, and what they decided to give you access to. Just like in offline relationships. This means that you, as the person with access to the data, have an ethical responsibility towards the person who made some of his/her personal information available to you.

Because you have access to it, does that mean you have the right to publish it in a more public space? Well, I’d say the answer is most obviously “no”. By doing that, you’re betraying the trust of the person who made the data available to you.

Now, of course, I’m the first to say that you cannot control digital stuff you create and should be aware that you run the risk of seeing your private digital data ending up on the public internet at some point. “Even if it’s in a private setting, anybody can copy it and make it public.” Sure. But that doesn’t mean it’s right to do so.

So, why am I writing this? Somebody just brought to my attention that IB com published an article about Facebook in their latest issue. And to illustrate that article, a screenshot of my Facebook profile was used. The article was written by a friend of mine (“friendly-business-acquaintance” friend), who obviously had access to my “friends only” Facebook profile.

He didn’t ask me if it was OK to publish my Facebook profile in print. If he had, I might have said “no”, but I might also have simply sanitized my profile so that he could take a screenshot I would have felt comfortable showing to the public.

He didn’t realize that by publishing my Facebook profile or showing it to others outside my friends’ circle, he is making information I would like to keep somewhat private available to people I would not necessarily choose to give it to. In this case, it’s not disastrous, because I am pretty conservative about what I put online, even on my Facebook profile (and I’m more transparent then most, so there aren’t many things I keep private). But there are at times things there I would rather keep for people I know — not the 10’000 readers of IBcom.

Just like most bloggers do not consider everything said in a conversation over a glass of beer “fair game” for blogging (when in doubt, ask, unless you’re ready to jeopardize your relationships over this kind of stuff), not everything you access in social networks is fair game for publication.

As social networks get smarter about privacy, I think we’re going to bump into this kind of problem more. For the moment, it’s up to each of us to be vigilant about what we take of others’ content and make available elsewhere. And maybe we need tools that can help us keep track of privacy settings better, and warn us when we’re about to make such a “faux pas”.

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This entry was posted in Connected Life, Social Media and the Web and tagged Cyberspace, data, facebook, flickr, friends, ibcom, information, internet, Online Culture, pownce, privacy, profile, relationships, Social Software, socialnetworking, socialnetworks, socialtools, SPSN, trust, twitter, viddler. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Ethics and Privacy in the Digital Age

  1. Pingback: links for 2007-09-17 | Chris F. Waigl

  2. That would annoy the hell out of me, especially since Facebook’s privacy settings explicitly differentiate (if nothing else) between you/your friends and the rest of the world. I’d see that as quite a betrayal of trust. And a good motivation for a pointed unfriending, surely the closest the online world comes to outright defenestration.

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