Privacy is one of the most complex social, political and commercial issues on the web. It’s not a single issue at all really, it’s a seething mass of issues, struggles, norms being negotiated, lines being re-drawn…
A few years ago, Matt Locke wrote an incredibly useful essay called Six spaces of social media (secret, group, publishing, performing, partcipation and watching), in an attempt to pry definitions of social spaces away from technical and platform ones and focus minds on what was actually happening in these spaces. You know, the interesting, human stuff. All of these spaces might exist in Facebook, for instance, or in a forum, or across several platforms (Twitter/blog/Facebook/email is a common combination).
Now he’s come back to the topic with a post about transgressions, that is to say when other users or the platform owners do things with your stuff (data, identity, images etc.) that you didn’t want them to.
To illustrate “user transgressions” he cites the recent case against Loaded magazine, by a woman whose photos from her personal (public) photo albums had become internet famous (most famous for her posters entitled “Epic Boobs”. The judge ruled that since there were so many images of her on the web (1.7 million+ references on Google) that Loaded was not infringing copyright by using them (though a legal eyebrow was raised at the magazine’s morals, since the photos were of her aged 15).
When it comes to “platform transgressions”, well the obvious case is Facebook with it’s shifting privacy settings and controls (that were complex enough in the first place) that seem to nudge increasing amounts of users’ personal data and content into the public domain.
What is remarkable about the Epic Boobs and Facebook transgressions is that they are gradual and hard for the person involved to track. In an analogue media world, the transgression between registers is sharp and obvious ? a newspaper would have had to contact you to get a copy of a photo for them to use, and your personal photographs couldn?t become a global property without you knowing about it. We now live in an age where transgression is insidious and invisible, where users can?t understand the potential risks of sharing until it?s caused them significant pain.
This stuff is my profession, my livelihood. For goodness sake, I’ve written a book about it and I find it hard to maintain a working understanding of what the rules and implications are around privacy settings on Facebook. What hope for noobs, for the mainstream social media user.
And yet, despite of and because of its complexity, understanding the shifting contexts and pathways that personal information takes on the web is becoming hugely important to all of us, as individuals and for organisations also. Matt pegs it as the number one issue for everyone online…
Understanding trangression is going to be *the* most important thing for business and users working online in the next few years. Users will need to interrogate the services they use for potential transgressions of their information across contexts (as with Facebook?s gradual publicising of user data); platform creators will have to be more explicit to users about how information transgresses different contexts, and make these transgreses more tangible to the user (simply ticking check boxes is not enough ? these transgressions need to have grain and weight built into the interaction); and large organisations will need to understand the implicit and assumed contexts of the spaces they are using to connect to their users, and how to ask permission when they take contributions or data from one context to another.
For individuals, this means working on their digital literacy and understanding of the online realm. For brands and other organisations, this means that privacy is not reduced to disclaimers and caveats to cover the corporate behind, but a core part of strategy for online presence. What organisations do in the web will affect it, affect the flows and networks of user behaviours and data in ways that won’t always be anticipated.
It won’t be easy, but for anyone who wants more than an arm’s length connection with the web, it will be absolutely necessary.