Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Privacy on the Web

So I argued with my girlfriend tonight over the issue of internet privacy and if Tomorrow.sg has a right to post very personal posts on their meta-blog. Of course it became a heated argument and it devolved into other issues that she was not happy with, but that is of no consequence here.

I have several thoughts on this issue.

(1) Is publishing your thoughts on a blog, website or internet forum a copyrighted matter?

Well if someone publishes a memoir offline, copyrights apply insofar as we cannot reproduce more than a chapter or 10% of the book whichever comes first. But I can quote someone on something he has written or published. Like say for example "Hummingbird, J, The Life and Times of a Simple Man, Silly Press, 1999"

So herein lies the question. Is posting something you read about online an infringement of that person's privacy? Especially if you linked them on your site.

I personally feel if you gave credit to them, it's ok to mention them. I mean a link is like a citation. In fact in scholarly works, taking something off the internet requires you to put in the URL in place of a traditional citation.

(2) Blogs are private spaces.

Handwritten diaries are private spaces. Blogs are private insofar as you can set up password protections and limit who you tell about them. I have a friend who has a private blog which I promise not to spread. But if someone comes across it, likes it and posts it, there's little I can do about that.

The internet is a public sphere. Governments argue about how to regulate it or how not to regulate it simply because it is a beast of information freeflow.

Anything you put online is open to public scrutiny. Scholars have been passed from hiring if they blogged intellectual works that may not seem scholarly at all. My friend was told to shut down his blog if he wanted to be hired by the company, and he did so immediately.

Writing can be a way to work out demons. Whatever they are. But if you right it on the web, you know people are bound to come across it.

(3) Privacy must be respected.

Yes it must. We should not badger someone too much on what they commented. Or spam them or hack into their sites. That would be wrong. And if it is password protected but we had the honor of reading it and we think the world should know, then we should seek permission to get it shared.

Then again as a blogger myself and having to deal with my fair share of hate comments (which usually outweigh the nice comments on this blog), when you do something so public, you should expect to be read and commented upon.

I mean if a site is password protected then it is extremely wrong to hack into it to read it. It is also wrong to steal a diary and break the lock to read it. But if the person leaves the diary in the library everyday without a lock, then you cannot blame someone for reading it and posting a comment in the margins.

(4) It's a very private matter

If it's that private why write about it on a public forum. Write it down in an offline diary or journal or protect it. If it's protected and you friend posted about it, then maybe you shouldn't be friends with someone who would violate your personal wishes. Same with a friend who tells someone else your deep dark secret.

I suspect we write because we want an audience or we have an audience. And if you really were raped and wrote about it on your blog, you know you've got it coming. Writing is a good way to excorcise demons and I do it often, but I also do it offline. I don't want people to be reading my private thoughts.

(5) I want to protect it but I don't know how

I'm not sure either. Try blogsome or get your own server. These sites would protect your work and allow you to limit those who can read you. Or ask other bloggers who password protect their entires, I'm sure they'll share.

(6) Writing is soothing and helps me

Write away, but do it offline or not on the internet. No matter how much you protect it people can get to it if it's somewhere on the web. There are loopholes everywhere. I mean even offline diaries and journals are susceptible to theft by little brothers who have nothing else to do, or overworried parents.

Writing something down is a risk we take. Federal judge nominees face scrutiny on their past writings. Academics face huge scrutiny on their past works. I mean anything we write down could be left to posterity. And it can always come back to haunt us. A private diary is unlikely to haunt us, but then again some famous men have had their private diaries scrutinised long after they have died.


So here's my point, if you put something deemed so private on a public forum, then you cannot blame someone if he posts it on his site. It is not an infringement of intellectual property rights if he properly credits it to you.

It is a violation of your privacy, but that was the risk you took when you posted on a public forum. No two ways about it. You can ask for it to be taken down and if he refuses, again there is nothing much you can do about it. It isn't libel or slander since you wrote it yourself. It isn't intellectual theft, because he properly accredited it to you. Best way to avoid this is to password protect it or not write online about it.

As a final thought on the matter...

(7) Should the editors of Tomorrow.sg practise some standards and respect other people's privacy?

I suppose they could. But we can't force them either. They're a meta-blog, they set out to trawl the net to find things that are worth reading. If you're private thoughts are worth reading because they are profound thoughts or because it is sensational, then they'll post it.

The judegement as to whether or not they should sensationalise their site is entirely theirs to make. I mean we can boycott them if we think they've crossed the line too many times. It's the same reason why I don't read the New Paper because they're nothing more than a tabloid.

Are there ethical and moral issues involved, yes there is, but we cannot assume to hold everyone to high standards. To post something is a judgement call, and if it's out there in the open, we assume that they're ok if someone read it. And so as long as we properly credit it, we're good on IPR.

So I leave this issue as it is, a seemingly unsolvable mess. Who's right in this respect is diffcult to say. My only advise is not to post private matters online, it'll see the light of day eventually. Putting such thoughts online is asking for attention whether conciously or subconciously, when you get it, don't be upset if it is negative. Deal with the consquences of your actions like an adult and not a petulant child, most of our problems are self-inflicted not someone else's fault.