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#mesh08: Private vs. Public

I sat through a late day session at Mesh ’08 yesterday titled Private vs. Public. Chaired by Rachel Sklar, it featured Nancy Baym, Mark Kingwell, and Ken Anderson. The promise?

Are society’s notions about privacy changing? Does anyone even care about privacy any more? Once you provide your information, does it belong to you or to Them? Younger Web users seem perfectly comfortable disclosing even intimate personal details to people they meet online. But some are concerned about what seems like excessive disclosure, and also wonder what happens to your data once social media sites get hold of it. Come and discuss these issues and more with Internet researcher Nancy Baym of the University of Kansas, philosophy professor and author Mark Kingwell and Ken Anderson, assistant privacy commissioner for Ontario, in a panel moderated by Rachel Sklar.

It was a fabulous premise, but a huge noop in terms of delivery. Rather than focus on the real issues, moderator Rachel Sklar guided the conversation through a series of the typical hype riddled hand wringing crap that ignorant media people who don’t understand privacy issues typically bring up.

A much more valuable conversation at Canada’s Web Conference would have been around what rights we as Canadians should expect. We have privacy rights in Canada, whereas Americans don’t. Convening a panel with an American philosophy professor, and an American internet researcher, chaired by an American journalist, all of whom were unprepared to discuss the privacy rights guaranteed Canadians, was a waste of time.

I would have liked to have seen an in-depth discussion of:

  1. your privacy rights and what you should do to protect them. What does the act, PIPEDA, guarantee you?
  2. the proliferation of video surveillance throughout Canada, and what is legislatively being done to protect citizens from undue and unwanted surveillance. Ken Anderson at least addressed this from the point of view of surveillance cameras in Toronto.
  3. the changing privacy landscape in the US. Many of the US web sites Canadians currently use are adapting their privacy policies to match Canadian style privacy policies. Facebook, for example, is one such site.
  4. what rights do you have in law with respect to privacy policies on web sites? Is a privacy policy a contract, or something else?
  5. if you’re starting a business, what should you focus on with respect to privacy? What is the users expectation? What are your legal obligations?
  6. as a business owner, what are the implications of storing your data or locating your servers offshore or in the US?

There were so many more interesting privacy questions that could have been explored in that session. Instead the central question seemed to be who has a right to your drunken college pictures on Facebook.


{ 8 comments… add one }

  • Rachel Sklar May 22, 2008, 8:05 pm

    I read this blog post with great interest – sorry the panel wasn't tailor-made to your individual preferences, but I thought I'd start with the actual panel description and move on. That's why I opened asking why the notion of privacy was even important, and was sure to touch on issues of identity, protection of personal details in the public-private sphere, whose job it is to regulate, and what's happening on the legal front. Ken Anderson gave a terrific answer to the question about video surveillance in Toronto – the highlight of the event, in my opinion – and both Nancy Baym and Mark Kingwell added important and thoughtful points to the discussion. If you read their bios you'll see that Nancy (U.S.) could not be more well-versed and well-rounded on the subject, and Mark Kingwell (last I checked U of T was in Canada – I'm pretty sure that counts) also had a ton to add. Your numbered points raise some interesting questions, but they definitely address a different set of concerns than those articulated in the session description.

    Speaking of that description, I don't recall seeing the word "Canada" in it — the topic includes far more than just Canada, and norms online are developed and shaped in communities in which Canadians are not the only constituency. That said, I felt that Canada was well-represented thanks to Ken's comments plus the discussion of the Brandon, Manitoba Facebook court case, as well in the general discussion which chewed through the issues as they affect users across borders. All that said, you were more than welcome to ask a question to refocus the discussion, as many other participants did. That's always a pretty direct way to get the answers you're looking for.

  • Rachel Sklar May 22, 2008, 8:50 pm

    Aha – put two and two together and now know who you are. Okay, so asking questions was clearly not a problem for you (or, at least, making comments) – but as I recall Anderson answered your specific question equally specifically. Best of luck with your late-night park dwelling, though.

  • Alec May 22, 2008, 8:59 pm

    Thanks for dropping by Rachel. Let me frame the following comments by saying that of the sessions at the conference, yours was one that I anticipated the most. I have been actively working to shape the conversation on privacy for some time. As an entrepreneur I've needed to. It's been a steep learning curve. But, having educated myself, I feel passionately that people need to understand the framework, their rights, and the issues. That's the reason why, for instance, I published this guest editorial on GigaOm earlier this year: http://gigaom.com/2008/01/08/a-privacy-manifesto-

    Vis a vis your request for participation and redirect — I was "Guy in red at the back". It was me who challenged Ken to do more than just talk about the TTC, and to talk about the rights that we all should have including people who live outside of Toronto. The issue of video surveillance matters to people in every city, as I wrote about here: http://saunderslog.com/2007/08/13/ottawas-panopti….

    Towards the end of the session, it was me who spoke up and said that you guys were overblowing the issue of Facebook and personal indiscretion, and pointed out that we in Canada do have laws that are designed to protect you. My assertion was that there is a need for people to become educated and proactive on these issues, rather than wring hands.

    You're right that norms online are developed in other venues. However, by choosing to focus on US examples rather than contrasting them with Canadian or European (both of which are far more advanced in privacy than the US is) you presented an unbalanced view that doesn't reflect the society in which the vase majority of the attendees at "Canada's Web Conference" live and work.

    You could have had a real discussion about "who owns your data"? You could have noted that it varies by jurisdiction — in the US business owns your data, but in Canada and Europe you do — and discussed what the implications of that are. Why didn't you discuss terms of service, and privacy policies? Why didn't you discuss how those privacy policies and data ownership issues impact ordinary people in areas like identity theft? Why didn't you dig into the flap around data portability and the impact of different ownership scenarios?

    There were so many places that conversation could have gone that would have generated substantive and valuable dialog. You didn't need to "tailor make" it to my "individual preferences".

    And yes, I was mistaken on Mark Kingwell. I read his bio, but obviously not carefully enough.

  • Nick Desbarats May 23, 2008, 5:39 am

    Having sat in on this Mesh session, I also came out disappointed. My gripe isn't so much that it wasn't Canada-centric (many of the people in the audience have sites with US/international reach), but that it wasn't Web-centric. The cameras-in-the-TTC issue is important, but not what people came to Mesh to discuss, and I didn't hear much commentary or insight that had not already been widely reported in the mainstream media. Mentioning a few Facebook incidents that everyone in the audience knows about already didn't add much.

    As Alec pointed out, most people in the audience own or manage a site that collects user data, and are currently grappling with the same half-dozen or so hot-potato issues, few of which were addressed.

    As a polite Canadian 😉 I don't want to bash the panel participants for taking the time to come to Mesh, but I think a panel of experts in *Web* privacy (as opposed to privacy in general) would have been more relevant to this audience.

  • Rachel Sklar May 24, 2008, 11:54 am

    Alec, I know you were the guy in red – and it was very obvious that you came in with specific ideas about what you wanted to discuss. But there were other people in the audience with their hands up for questions, and I would have sooner called on them than given you a third crack at the mike (your first question, and subsequent follow-up). Go back to the description of the panel – that's what I was asked to work with, and we tried to touch on all those issues in the panel. Nick comments that he wishes the panel could have been more web-centric – that would have knocked your question and Rob Spence's out of contention, and lots of what Ken had to say.

    You know, I emailed the panel participants and invited them to send me any articles or links that they thought I should see before the panel, and heard from other people going to mesh about what they thought it would include – if you were really that invested in it, you could easily have dropped me an email before with some of these links, and I would have been happy to check them out in my research. I'm not that hard to find. I'm not saying I would have tailored the panel to your specifications, but I would happily have received and reviewed your suggestions, as I did with other people involved.

    If you have issues with what the panel covered that's fine and this kind of feedback is no doubt helpful for next year, but honestly, you really can't blame me for not reading your articles – or your mind.

  • Alec May 25, 2008, 4:34 am

    Rachel – I am sorry, I am just not being very clear. My ideas about what to discuss are really irrelevant, and it's not about reading my mind. I am being critical of the same thing that Nick is, which is lack of depth. I would have loved to have come there and learned something new, but there was no meat in your session.

    Moreover, your suggestion that "if you were really that invested in it, you could have easily dropped an email before" is a little silly, don't you think? I'm the CEO of a startup. My blog is my hobby. You're a journalist. Your job is to research the issues and communicate. As the moderator, don't you think it was your job to understand the audience and the issues, and to shape the conversation for that group?

  • daniel debow May 28, 2008, 4:13 pm

    "…chaired by an American journalist"

    er, Rachel is very Canadian.

  • Alec May 28, 2008, 5:40 pm

    Daniel — you're correct in terms of citizenship. Rachel lives and works in NY City. A more factually correct statement might be "… chaired by a US based journalist". It doesn't alter the fact that the session was not as relevant as it could have been for a Canadian audience.

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