Musing about information and power via privacy and identity

Let me take a random list of events, some current, some not-so-current:

Lots of leaks. Lots of leaks that affect Web 2.0 companies. Lots of worried people. What is it they have in common? [No, please do not start a conspiracy theory for all this; if you feel like that, then please take your Grassy Knoll and park it in the Mare Tranquillitatis….]

Trust. Yes, again, it’s all about trust.

People are comfortable with sharing all kinds of things, via social networking sites, via Flickr, via blogs, via, via LibraryThing, whatever. They go further, they share feed lists using OPML, share sites they visit via StumbleUpon, the list goes on and on.

So what’s the big deal? Why do people get so upset with the leaks mentioned above? It’s not as simple as “people don’t mind good things coming out, they don’t like bad things coming out”. For example, “Black” credit information has been shared for much longer than “white”. So what is it?

It appears to me that sharing of digital information takes place when four trust questions are answered correctly:

  • Did the person or group tell you that the information was being collected?
  • Did you agree to it being collected?
  • Did they promise you not to share it with others?
  • Do you have recourse if they fail to keep that promise?

The questions and answer need not be explicit, but they must, at the very least, be tacitly agreed.

This trust, even if based on tacit agreements, is very specific. It is between a person and a group. That group may be a group consisting of one person. A small community. A firm. Whatever.

Which brings me to my musing. Two questions:
If information is power, and personal information has value, then you can aggregate this information to get greater value. Can such aggregated information reach monopoly levels, become an antitrust issue? Can we start expecting antitrust rulings based on “information power share”?

This information, with all its power, gains that power at least partially as a result of a tacit agreement between the information donor and the information aggregator. How does this affect M&A? Take a hypothetical example. Say I’m comfortable with sharing purchase patterns with Company A but not with Company B. So I have an agreement with Company A but not with B. Then B tries to buy A. Do I get my information back? What happens?

If we take this to its logical conclusion, then take a look at government departments. We share information with them, allow them to collect it and store it and do various unspeakable things to it, on a tacit agreement. No unauthorised sharing. Which is why people like EFF and ACLU are so up in arms with what happens with, say, medical and psychiatric records.

I can see only one way out. But I want to see what others think.

3 thoughts on “Musing about information and power via privacy and identity”

  1. JP

    You say that “The questions and answer need not be explicit, but they must, at the very least, be tacitly agreed.” While I agree in principle, I think the facebook incident shows that many users demand more.

    It seemed to me that those who felt they had cause to complain were “guilty” of not dealing with their own privacy settings and “tacitly” agreed to what followed.

    One could argue that it would have been smarter (though perhaps more inconvenient) for Facebook to have set the default privacy setting at the highest level and required users to actively liberalise them if they chose to do so. But where does one draw the line.

    There needs to be a degree of education for users of social software – namely that membership of a society comes with some caveat emptor type responsibilities – whereas many users currently assume that the “society” guardians will know exactly what each and every member deems to be OK.

  2. I agree with John Dodds about the need for educating users of social software, but I think is scope needs to be broadened.

    If JP can reminisce about his youth, then so can I! When I was in middle school, I had a social studies class where we all had to submit essays to a competition being run by the local American Legion Post. I ended up winning with an essay entitled “A Citizen’s Rights and Duties.” The basic outline was actually cribbed from a chart in my history book; but all the “flesh” came from my digging up a variety of sources for each of the entries in the chart. I really enjoyed this project, because it provided me my first opportunity to reflect seriously on the nature of citizenship.

    The reason I offer this anecdote is that it indicates that I grew up at a time when my public education system took (or at least tried to take) the concept of “citizenship” very seriously. I believe that this is the broader scope of what John means by “membership of a society.” I also believe that this is the sort of education that has to be part of one’s entire learning experience, beginning with one’s first exposure to family relations and extending all the way into adulthood.

    As far as JP is concerned, I believe that “trust” is part of a “curriculum of citizenship.” However, it is only a part; and I am afraid that it is a part that has been polluted by much of recent intellectual activity, going back at least as far as Fukuyama, getting picked up by the (would-be) gurus of “social capital,” and now being raked over the coals of globalization. The proper scope for this discussion can probably be found in the “Politics” of Aristotle. All the questions that JP has raised fall under the scope of what Aristotle called PHRONESIS; and I like to follow Habermas’ lead in translating that as “a prudent understanding of the situation.”

    Here in the United States I believe that our educational system no longer prepares us for that “prudent understanding” of the situations we encounter, whether they are on the Internet, at home, or on the street. I also have my doubts that techno-centric visions of new approaches to education built around the rich connectivity of the Internet will prepare us any better. We cannot learn to be good citizens on the Internet unless we have learned to be good citizens in our household and in the various communities (local, municipal, state, national) in which we live.

Let me know what you think

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