Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The power of images and data

Three articles, all connected around several themes.

The first one is about Chatroulette's site which works on the basis of logging in for random chats with people all over the world (well, at least that is what they tell you). The principle may seem great but exhibitionists and voyeurs populate the site so much that whoever uses it is sure to encounter some unpleasant images or chat on a regular basis, about one every ten chats. The problem is that students, children, anybody has access to it.
What I found fascinating is the fact that people want to spend time at random with images displayed, often of their own private homes. There is a sense that their privacy is not infringed because the others do not know where they live... But that is on the basis that they reveal nothing of themselves. Yet, even with one image (that can be captured from the webcam), somebody can start tracking down the person since some websites allow to search for matching pictures. Anonymity cannot really exist.

"Online voyeurs flock to the random thrills of Chatroulette", The Observer, 14 February 2010 page 20
On an anedoctal use of Chatroulette, "Band 'Releases' New Album Via Chatroulette" 15 February 2010
and for the French Secretary of State to ask for regulation of Internet at an international level: "Nadine Morano demande à l’ONU de réguler Internet", 01net, 25 February 2010

The second article is about comments made by Mark Zuckerberg, one of the founders of Facebook that "people have gotten really comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people", and that lack of privacy as a "social norm". The article astutely points out the constrast between the affirmation and the reality of Mr Zuckerberg's behaviour to withdraw pictures from his facebook page! We may feel comfortable with others' lack of privacy, but not with our own. There is here an element of voyeurism, like with gossip: it is fine to gossip about others, but not about ourselves!
Even more interesting is a Sunday Times poll explained in the article, where 63% disagree with the statement that privacy matters less than before and 70% say they are worried about communication of private data.
There is an obvious need to redefine privacy in the internet age, I would add, in the Facebook age. What does it mean in legal terms?
There is also a question of education and responsiblity here. All those examples of people having posted images of others (without their knowledge) in embarrassing situations with unintended consequences of loss of jobs, refusal of qualification etc... There is a need to learn about our responsiblity towards others, like when on the road, and seeing a bad driver - one cannot pretend not seeing him/her and continue driving, one has to adapt-; but there is also a need to learn not to take images at face value, that seeing somebody being drunk once does not mean s/he is unfit for a job. Relativity... a new relationship to images and words on the net...

"Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg says privacy is dead. So why does he want to keeps this picture hidden?" The Sunday Times, 17 January 2010 page 12

For an earlier version of the same problem on Facebook, "Public lives: Does the internet know too much about us?", The Independent, 30 June 2008

The third article is about the EU being worried about Google and the YouTube case in Italy. Europe Looms as Major Battleground for Google, The NY Times, 14 February 2010 (the printed version is titled: In Europe, Unease with Google's Power Grows - bad English by the way)

On the issue of privacy and speech, see Global Network Initiative

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