Jesurgislac’s Journal

June 6, 2010

Privacy Matters

I blog, and comment on blogs, under a pseudonym.

(To answer the question everyone asks: Je surgis lac is a Monty Python joke, meaning “I rise from the Lake” in bastard French: it is also, with a couple of letters changed, an anagram of my real name. I invented it because I wanted a unique handle: I accept that it’s hard to spell and I take no offense if it is mis-spelt. But most people call me Jes, if they want to shorten it.)

Reasons people may prefer pseudonyms or limited personal disclosure on the Internet, to quote CoffeeandInk on this topic:

  • Because it is a standard identity- and privacy-protection precaution
  • Because they have experienced online or offline stalking, harassment, or political or domestic violence
  • Because they wish to discuss sexual abuse, sexuality, domestic abuse, assault, politics, health, or mental illness, and do not wish some subset of family, friends, strangers, aquaintances, employers, or potential employers to know about it
  • Because they wish to keep their private lives, activities, and tastes separate from their professional lives, employers, or potential employers
  • Because they fear threats to their employment or the custody of their children
  • Because it’s the custom among their Internet cohort
  • Because it’s no one else’s business

Whether you are my friend, my enemy, a chance acquaintance or a casual commenter, I support your right to be as private or as public as you choose on the Internet.

The last time this came up was February: Google had decided they wanted to set up a social network like Facebook, and in order to get one fast, they opted all Gmail users into Google Buzz. The reaction to this from many users was prompt and angry: opt out of Buzz and warn others about it. As Jona at Mozilla labs said: Social networks should always be opt in, never opt out.

My point is that I’m one of the lucky ones; privacy concerns are far from trivial for many, many people. When someone with privilege and power says things like “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place…” (Eric Schmidt) or “You have zero privacy anyway; get over it.” (Scott McNealy), they show an astounding lack of empathy. They’re obviously not considering things from the point of view of the woman who is the target of violence, or the citizen of an oppressive regime, or the whistleblower, or… anyone other than themselves, basically.

(Also see Fugitivus, now shut down, quite possibly by Google Buzz.)

Now Yahoo have decided to try the same thing – and once again, they’ve made it opt-out rather than opt-in. As of next week, if you have a yahoo mail account, and you haven’t opted out of Updates, information you post may be pushed onto the screens of everyone who has your yahoo mail account listed in their contacts. You yourself will have no control whatsoever over who gets to see your updates.

Your only choice is to opt out completely. Here’s how. Electronic Frontier Foundation:

To opt-out of the new program, go to http://profiles.yahoo.com/settings/updates/ and uncheck the box next to Share My Updates. In addition, to opt out of sharing authorized by your friends, you need to go to http://profiles.yahoo.com/settings/permissions, and uncheck “Allow my connections to share my information labeled ‘My Connections’ with third-party applications.” While on this page, you should review your settings, and adjust the privacy levels as appropriate.

That fixes the immediate problem. But more than that: we need to make understood that anyone starting a new social networking system must make it opt-in, not opt-out. Corporations that have possession of our e-mail addresses and can jumpstart a social network system by involuntarily joining us up to it, must learn that this is counterproductive as well as wrong.

Opt out of Yahoo’s attempt to use our info. Then, please, post the link to EFF’s page somewhere public: say you opted out, say why, and ask other people to do the same thing and pass the word along. Let us make clear to these corporations that we will frustrate their attempts to make use of us in this way.

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