June 01, 2011

Weiner, Whiners, and Social: Public Means Public!

I had hoped that it would not be necessary to spend time discussing the Twitter controversy of a photo that (might be) of a Congressman's underwear-laden crotch.

However, people keep asking me about this, and about another story in the news right now, regarding a PhD student at the University of Amsterdam, whose nose is apparently all out of joint over his ability to create a database of (we're told) 35 million public Google Profiles.

It's difficult for me to imagine a topic in which I'd have less inherent interest than Rep. Weiner's photography/Twitter habits in any likely context. And the collecting of already public Google Profiles is equally yawn inducing from my standpoint.

Yet there is an underlying theme. Both of these stories have been sucking considerable oxygen out of the current news cycles, and also remind me of the usually rather nutty and misguided protests regarding Google Street View, about which I've written many times (I won't clog up the text here with associated links today, you know how to find them).

Fundamentally, there is a complex dynamic between "privacy rights" as most broadly defined, and other key elements of civil rights, including free speech.

I am of course a strong supporter of communications free from government or other eavesdropping. I believe that if persons wish to keep the private details of their lives away from public view, in most cases that's completely reasonable.

Intellectually though, and at the gut level as well, I find it quite distressing to see attempts to use unrealistic and often purposely distorted "privacy concerns" as excuses to unreasonably muzzle free speech and related activities.

We see people bemoaning the fact that it's possible to analyze public Twitter feeds retrospectively. The ability to collect public Google profiles -- created voluntarily by Google users and with all information contained therein under their personal control -- is suddenly a global story. The taking of photos from public thoroughfares, of the same imagery that anyone can see from those same vantage points, triggers bizarre protests of indignation.

And I might add to this list, the collection of geolocation data from open, unencrypted Wi-Fi access points, that is irrationally treated in some quarters as a civil or even criminal offense.

All of these are examples of ersatz -- that is, essentially false -- privacy issues. Some persons raise them out of genuine though in most cases misguided concerns, other times they are invoked disingenuously for political or commercial advantage.

Again, this is not to cast aspersions of any kind on genuine privacy matters, and the protection of genuinely private data, categories of great interest to me for decades. Nor am I arguing that there shouldn't be intense deliberations over if and how various data should be made public en masse in the first place, especially with a proactive view toward whether such data, once easily available, might be abused.

But let's get real. Sounding alarms over people or firms gathering and using data that is already out there -- easily accessible and easily viewable -- is nonsense.

In fact, creating artificial rules trying to restrict the gathering or use of such data after the fact of its large scale availability can be extremely counterproductive and do serious damage. Such concocted, mock "restrictions" can easily give people a false sense of confidence that their already public data is somehow going to be "protected" by such rules, shifting responsibility from the making of reasoned decisions about what data they really wished to make public in the first place.

With so many critical, genuine privacy issues in the forefront today, on both the domestic and international stages, we shouldn't be wasting any of our time or energies on attempts to create sham privacy controversies relating to already public information.

Otherwise, we may find ourselves inadvertently allowing the enemies of freedom to distort and mutate genuine concerns about privacy into twisted and perverted doppelgangers to be used as powerful weapons against free speech itself.

It would be ironic indeed if we permit as important an area as privacy policy to be hijacked to the detriment of fundamental civil rights.

But it could happen -- something to discuss with your family, friends, and colleagues perhaps, that is ... while you still can.


Posted by Lauren at June 1, 2011 09:14 PM | Permalink
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