Posts about privacy

When Google’s the library, who’s the librarian?

PaidContent says it’s a false alarm that Viacom will get personally identifiable information on our video viewing from YouTube and Google as part of its self-destructive lawsuit. Nonetheless, the episode has sparked the question I pose in the headline: When Google becomes our library, who acts as the librarian to protect our privacy as a matter of principle?

And what is the principle? Any site with content — Google, Amazon, a newspaper, a blog, an ISP — is now the moral equivalent of a library or bookstore, two institutions that try hard not to hand over information on what content we seek and consume arguing that that would violate our First Amendment rights. The controversy in the telco immunity legislation is that those searches were made without warrants. In this case, there is a warrant. When I ran sites, we got subpoenas all the time and handed over IP addresses when ordered; that was company policy. I always found it troubling and as a result ordered that we would change our data retention policy and get rid of IP addresses as soon as possible. Should Google and other sites erase IPs and rely only on cookies without personally identifiable information?

I say all this more as a question than as a statement. Viacom could have just as easily gotten our addresses and account names. Even as blind as Viacom is to the new reality — the suit itself is the proof of that — they realized, as PaidContent points out, that getting our personal viewing information would have turned them into a corporate peeping-tom pariah. So what is the principle and the law in your view? What should they be? And what are the practical tactics we should expect content sites to take? Should I be erasing my logs? Is that pointless because Google Analytics has them too? What gives?

: LATER: Bob Wyman adds in the comments:

PaidContent was spun… They are wrong. Viacom claims that they will receive no “personally identifiable information” because they managed to get the judge to accept that “login id is a pseudonym … which … ‘cannot identify specific individuals’” (See pages 13-14 of the ruling). The judge granted Viacom’s demand to receive “all data from the Logging database” — including login id.

I don’t know about you, but I sure think my Google “login id” does a pretty good job of identifying me…

:UPDATE: the Journal has a good July 4 story outlining how Google is trying to get Viacom to agree to scrubbing personally identifiable information out of the data because of the uproar over it.

We need a principle as we have one governing the ethics and if possible the behavior of bookstores and libraries. Google is the library.

Really public health

I signed up for Google Health and immediately found it handy with news about each of my conditions. My wife wondered why anyone would use it and risk health data becoming public.

But my life is already an open blog and I’ve already talked about most of my conditions — mainly atrial fibrilation — and received benefit for it: support, links, resources, others’ experiences.

So why not talk publicly about our health? Fear. We fear losing a job or not getting insurance or, with certain conditions, being stigmatized. That is what we should address. With universal insurance and laws to prevent discrimination on health, we’d have no need to fear. Stigma, I can’t do much about.

There are other benefits accruing if we talk publicly. The more we share experience and create data, the more doctors can learn about our conditions and perhaps what causes them. The more we support each other, the more helpful it is for each of us (see Patients Like Me).

Do I trust Google with my health information? Do I trust you? The key is to make sure that I have control over my data. Just as with Facebook, control is the issue.

: Just as I finished writing this, I see that Fred Wilson agrees. Note that his father and I have shared our afib experience and I found it very helpful.

Davos08: What happens in Davos stays in Davos?

I continue to wonder whether off-the-record can work anymore.

At a closed Davos session, I witnessed a bizarre anti-American meltdown by a government official. It went on for sometime before I finally had it and called this person on it, saying that the rant was anti-American and that I was offended. I’m not telling you anything more — including what else I said — so as not to identify the official because the session was off the record, as I was firmly reminded by a WEF person and as the moderator reminded the room five seconds after the event (which is to say that they knew this was newsworthy). The rule is clear and I’m respecting it.

But the next day, the official’s outburst was the topic du jour among all the dozens of people at the meeting and they talked about it with more people. And all those people are powerful: journalists, media executives, business titans, government officials. So the off-the-record rule is no shield for a brain fart. The people who witnessed it could and very well may affect that official’s career.

The argument for making things off-the-record is that participants will feel freer to talk and to be candid. And that seems to make sense. But at a place like Davos, you’re still talking among people who can affect policy, business, brand, media, and careers. And they talk. Just because it’s not in the press or on blogs doesn’t mean such a lapse won’t have an impact.

Now add to this the live nature of media today. Someone could have broadcast that moment live or Twittered it as it happened. No one in that room did or likely would because we all want to be invited back to Davos. Yes, that motivates me to follow the rule. But at any other event that is supposed to be off the record, there is surely someone in the room who won’t care. And once it’s out online, it’s out.

All this is further confused because my own policy is that I am generally on the record — my life is an open blog — unless I label something, which I try to do to be clear and which usually involves someone else’s information or privacy I want to respect. This had an impact on a session I moderated, which fell under the off-the-record cloak. But I said I was on the record and at least one other person piped in and said she is always on as well. Then someone who didn’t pipe up got quoted on a blog (no big deal, by the way). So it’s hard to know who and what are off-the-record nowadays without a scorecard.

Life is simply becoming more public. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Friends forever: The advantages of publicness

I say it’s a good thing that our lives are becoming more public and permanent on the internet. It will keep us closer as people. It might make us more civil and more forgiving as a result.

While we tend to focus on the dangers of losing privacy, for a Guardian column I’m working on, I’d like to examine the benefits of living in public, of publicness.

* * *

Start with the idea that young people today need never lose track of their friends, as I have with most of mine. That’s not only because they will leave bits of themselves online that will be be searchable and findable via Google, but also because they will remain linked in ever-expanding social networks, like Facebook, that connect them to their friends’ friends back through their own histories online.

Like everyone today — come on, admit it — I have Googled old friends and girlfriends. But at my age, that’s frustrating, since so few of my contemporaries have left visible Google shadows. I’ve found nothing for my high-school and college friends. So in January, 2003, I blogged a post listing a few names, just in case they Googled themselves with ego searches and found my “Google call” to them. Then, some months ago, I got email out of nowhere from my high-school girlfriend, Marki, extolling the wonders of Google. So now, via email, we’ve been catching up by tiny increments for more years than we’ll admit. I asked Marki whether she’d found my Google call or my Google shadow. It was the latter; she hadn’t heard of ego searches and my shadow is, well, bigger than me by now: My life is an open blog. Regardless, I’m delighted to reconnect with her. With each of us on opposite coasts, far away from our Midwestern alma mater and both disinclined to return for reunions, we never would have been able to reconnect without Google. Even so, the odds of making the link were small; it took one of us having a Google life and the other seeking it. I know we’re better off for it.

But for today’s young people, this won’t be so hard. They are all Googleable. They will all have threads connecting them on Facebook and whatever follows. (Alloy says that 96 percent of teens and tweens use social networks; they are now universal.)

So what does that mean to them? First, I think it means that they will maintain friendships and other relationships longer in life. I didn’t. I moved to four schools in three states in both elementary and high school (no, my father got out of the military so we wouldn’t move but then went into sales and we moved). I think that nomadism may have actually helped me. Friends will think this is a punchline but in truth, I was shy and being the new kid eight times forced me to be able to talk to people. But as we moved, I lost touch with almost every friend I had and that is a loss. If I had what young people have today, I could have stayed in touch with many of them or at least been able to track them through life.

I think this will lead to not just longer but better, richer friendships and I hope that is good for the character and good for the society. You’ll know that you can’t just escape people when you move on; you are tied to your past. And you’ll be able to stay in touch and won’t have those awkward moments of trying to catch up on 30 years over a single cocktail or email.

But what about living our lives in public? Yes, it’s possible that they could do one stupid thing in life and it goes onto Google — Google is everybody’s permanent record — and they are humiliated forever. Yes, it’s possible. Google CEO Eric Schmidt jokingly suggests we should be able to change our names and start fresh at age 21.

But I think this will be a matter of mutually assured humiliation: We will all have our moments of youthful indiscretion and we will have to forgive others’ if we want them to ignore ours. I say that could even make us more tolerant. OK, so you inhaled. So did I. Had awful taste in music once? Me, too. Wrote blog posts we’ve regretted? Haven’t we all? Yes, even our politicians’ youthful foibles will be open to the world to see and isn’t it better that we see their fallibility and humanity before they get into office? Isn’t it healthier if they and we don’t pretend they’re anything more than just people and politicians? And isn’t it better for democracy if they are forced to be more transparent?

There are other benefits to living life in public. It pushes us into social acts, into connecting with other people, even in subtle ways. When Flickr began, cofounder Caterina Fake has said, they made the fateful and fortunate decision to “default to public,” to go against the presumption and precedent of all the earlier photo services that we would want our pictures to be private. By making them public and by tagging them, we could find others’ photos and other people with shared interests; we could even find friends. made the same decision about defaulting to public and so our collective bookmarks and tags there yielded greater value together than they did apart; it enabled us to find more content like this and for content to be discovered by more people; it enabled us to — as David Weinberger has explained in his brilliant book, Everything is Miscellaneous — organize information. Publicness allows us to join up to do more together than we could alone.

You see, putting a photo on Flickr or a bookmark on or a tag on this post so it (and I) can be found in Technorati — and certainly blogging — all become social acts. And encouraging social acts would seem to be a social good.

As I’ve pointed out here before, young people have a different view of privacy and publicness because they realize you can’t make connections with people unless you reveal something of ourself: You won’t find fellow skiers unless you tell the world that you, too ski. I couldn’t find advice and support from people about my heart condition without revealing that I had one. Privacy advocates, as they are so often called, would be appalled that I revealed the most private of my personal information: my health data. But public people will tell you that living in public brings its benefits.

As I’ve also written recently, I think that Facebook has made important refinements on the idea of publicness on the internet by requiring real identity — not the anonymity and pseudonymity that dominate so much of the internet; by enabling us to control that identity and how public it is; and by enabling us to control our communities. We don’t live entirely in public; we decide how public want to be; we control our friendships. As I was researching this post — yes, I do research them, occasionally — I looked up my college girlfriend, who is an academic (a real one, unlike me) and found a review of one of her articles that eloquently summarized this idea of identity and the “crucial liberties” to “represent one’s identity publicly” and to “have a protected private sphere.” That is just what I wanted to explore here. Google kismet. She also posited the liberty to “equal opportunity to influence future generations.” That is about the purpose of living in public: the public as the political. You can’t change the world unless you’re willing to reveal how you think that should be done.

The issue isn’t so much privacy but, as Doc Searls has been writing, it is control of our identities and our data. Publicness is good so long as we decide how public we want to be.

* * *

So look at the benefits of publicness: We can maintain richer friendships longer. We may be more careful to act civilly in public. We may become more forgiving of others’ lapses of civility and sense in the hopes that they will forgive ours: the golden rule of the social life online, I hope. We can make connections with people with shared interests and needs. We act more socially. We find we can do more together than apart. We invest in and protect our identities and communities. We organize and act collaboratively to improve this world. Yes, there are risks to publicness and to losing privacy. But the benefits of life in the public are great. That is what my private peers do not realize but what the young public understands in their souls.

How personal should a blog be?

I apologize, blog friends, for having been silent since Wednesday night, when our family lost my brother-in-law, Steven Westmark, to a sudden and tragic heart attack.

I almost turned off the comments on this post, which may seem rather odd. But I know that you all would offer my family condolences, and if you do so in the comments and emails, I’ll feel guilty not responding to each of you with thanks. Your sympathies are assumed and accepted as are my thanks in return. But that’s not why I’m writing this post.

What has puzzled me these last few days is what I should or should not write about this and how personal this blog or any blog really is.

I often tell people that the best blog posts come when you see, read, hear, experience, or decide something and think, ‘I should tell my friends about that.’ Your friends, of course, are your readers.

There were many such moments in the last week. If this were fully personal, I’d be chronicling our debate about whether to be angry at God or kill him; the impressive maturity I’ve seen emerge from young people in the midst of trauma; the social and manipulative business of funerals; and even the media story of charging the bereaved $400 to share their news and grief (where is the craigslist of obituaries? perhaps it should be craigslist).

But I’m not doing any of that because it would, I believe, be an intrusion on my family’s privacy. I’m not doing it for their sake.

But for my sake? My life is an open blog. Sharing these moments and the context they give to other thoughts is what I do now. It is reflex. Or that’s what I’ve discovered in this time.

This isn’t unlike my days as a columnist in San Francisco in the late ’70s. I constantly had the column on my mind and when I saw or thought something column-worthy, I’d store it away like a nut in a tree until I could publish it. But that was more opportunistic. That was about filling a space six days a week. That made experiences a commodity to be exploited.

A blog is different. Pardon me for restating the overstated, but it’s a conversation, a conversation among friends. It’s different from publishing. And, of course, it’s personal: one person talking among others. And so privacy has a different impact. That’s a lesson young people teach us often these days in their attitudes toward privacy online: In this conversation, you can’t get something in return if you don’t give something of yourself. And in this case, I don’t mean the return of condolences. I mean the return of experiences and ideas and viewpoints. I can’t get those from you, which I value, if I don’t give something myself first: my experiences, my thoughts, and the context for them. It’s personal, a blog.

Sometime later, I may well have that conversation about killing God. And I think I will contemplate the impact of someone disrupting the obit market. But not now.

Now I’ll just say that personally, I miss Steve greatly. He was a magnificent uncle to my children. No one in our family understood kids like he did; there’s a special smile only he could bring to their faces. He was a wonderful brother to my wife and a generous brother-in-law to me. He was a great husband, father, brother, and son. Steve was a devoted Deadhead, a talented builder, great fun, one of a kind.