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My information, my story, my life

With the latest controversy about Facebook's Beacon advertising program erupting, will the issue of user control over their own information finally reach a tipping point in public consciousness?

The Internet has enabled the emergence of a collective consciousness that is unprecedented in human history. We are coming together as a hive, and the intelligence of the swarm is being mined and utilized like never before.

Knowledge is power, information is a cash commodity, and who decides how these resources and benefits are distributed? The latest controversy about Facebook's Beacon advertisements is one of many examples that suggests that the issue of user control over his or her own information is reaching a tipping point. We, the online masses, are developing a new sense that our own information is sacred and worth protecting, and not to be indiscriminately broadcast, or blindly exploited for someone else's commercial gain.

Beyond a "right to privacy" that might have meant "secrecy" in the past, we need to think about the right to control our information when it comes to:

  • What I say about myself
  • What others say about me, and
  • How that information is used

I see these issues coming up time and time again in a thread that runs through everything from Internet safety, to social networking, creative artists' rights, consumer/patient rights, all the way up to government wiretapping and surveillance.

These issues make my head spin. I am not a privacy expert, but as a citizen/writer/parent I now feel the need to become much more educated in this area. As far as life stresses go, this is unwelcome icing on the cake. I was already overwhelmed before I felt the need to bring this new area of expertise into my life.

For the past two months, I have been struggling with the seemingly simple choice of whether to join Facebook, and so far I have decided not to. I don't see why I should hand over my information to marketers in one tidy package. The thought-provoking backlash against Facebook's Beacon advertising program has reinforced my decision to stay on the sidelines until I have a better idea about what kind of bargain I would be making with the Marketing Devil by participating. I don't like the deal so far, and Facebook has done little to inspire trust. The current bargain could continue evolving in unpredictable ways in the future. In the meantime, if I hand over my personal information, it's set loose, out of my control.

My co-author Michael's recent (parent.thesis) post about Canon camera requiring photojournalists to wear vests with the Canon logos fits into this spectrum of issues. He and I have talked a lot about the slippery slope of information abuse and the meanings of various breaches of integrity. He had referenced doctors being influenced by drug company pressure to prescribe drugs, and just yesterday a piece in The New York Times Magazine delved deeply into the world of doctors who are paid to "educate" other professionals about the merits of a drug company's product.

In "Dr. Drug Rep,"Dr. Daniel Carlat relates his own experience in this role, why he thought the practice was ethical to begin with, and how his perspective evolved over time, leading him to exit the role of speaking on behalf of drug companies. This long, thoughtful article is worth reading in its entirety, and one paragraph jumped out at me:

"Naïve as I was, I found myself astonished at the level of detail that drug companies were able to acquire about doctors' prescribing habits. I asked my reps about it; they told me that they received printouts tracking local doctors' prescriptions every week. The process is called 'prescription data-mining...'"

How do we evaluate this use of "hive intelligence"? Do doctors have a right to keep their prescribing behavior private? Even if doctors didn't mind this information leak, do we as patients have the right to insist that this information is kept private--after all, it is information about us as well as about the doctor? Do we have the right to demand that the American Medical Association should not make millions of dollars from this information, which is leased to drug companies in order to ultimately wield influence over our doctors' medical decisions?

If I try to pack too many more issues into one blog post my own brain may explode, but I do need to come back to Internet safety for a minute. Right now, much of the public pressure on "Internet safety" dumps the responsibility into parents and teens' laps with little support. I can hear that conventional wisdom roar, "Those irresponsible parents...stupid teens...doing dumb things online." If we look at the framework of, what I say about myself, what others say about me, and how that information is used, we can see it is more complicated than that. I want to teach my family to thoughtfully and safely engage in the online community, but in order for that to be possible, I want companies to develop safe programs and fair user agreements, and to give me control of my information and how it is used. And in our communities we need to keep talking about standards of behavior and realize that what other people are saying about you is as much a part of online safety as what we are saying about ourselves. Kids and adults can be harassed, bullied, or commercially exploited through online communication even if they aren't actively participating on the Internet themselves.

I expect it will take us years to unravel all this, and we'll be chasing a moving target all the while. Once we realize that none of us can simply choose to opt-out of this situation, maybe we'll all start to take it more seriously on a large scale. I may be just one worker bee in the hive, but I can become an educated one. I've had Larry Lessig's book Code: Version 2.0 on my nightstand table for about six months now. Looks like it's time to move it to the top of the pile, and to take a fresh look at the work being done by the Creative Commons, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and EPIC. I'll write up my findings in future blog posts.