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Expectations of privacy are lower online and you should know this by now

Updated: Wed, October 16th 2013 2:22 pm
Image courtesy of Digital Trends Image courtesy of Digital Trends


By Andrew Couts
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You would think that, by now, tech savvy people would have some idea of how the Web works. Not in a technical sense – no, that's still the stuff of wizards. I'm talking about the simple act of posting content to a public-facing website, and the fact that doing so allows other people to see it, quote it, or link to it. You would think that, but you'd be wrong – and that is seriously blowing my mind right now.

The first example of baffling misunderstanding of the Web's inherently public nature was sparked on Friday, when Google announced plans to expand a certain type of advertisement it offers, called "Shared Endorsements," on November 11. Unless you choose to opt out (which you can do by simply unchecking the box on this page and clicking "Save") Google reserves the right to use your name and Google Plus profile photo in ads for products, services, and businesses whose pages and content you interacted with in some way.

Thing is, Shared Endorsements are nothing new – they've been around since 2011. The big change is that Google won't just use content you've clicked the +1 button for; instead it will also use content and pages you've followed, reviewed, or otherwise commented on to created Shared Endorsement ads.

In response, Google Plus users reportedly launched a protest against Shared Endorsements by replacing their profile photos with pictures of Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. Then, on Saturday, Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) got all serious on everyone by sending out a letter to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, asking the agency to investigate whether the Shared Endorsements expansion violates the terms of Google's 2011 privacy settlement with the FTC over the long-dead Buzz feature, in which Google promised not to change its privacy settings without explicit permission from users.

Now, I don't know about the FTC, but from what I've seen, Google has made it crystal clear that it plans to blow up Shared Endorsements into a bigger part of its ad network. It's also made it perfectly obvious how to opt out of having your name and photo used in ads. On the flip side, I get that people don't want their identities plastered all over the Internet, endorsing whatever random crap caught their fancy while procrastinating online.

Here's the thing: We've been living with social networks for nearly a decade now, and the ad-supported Web for a good deal longer than that. It's high time we recognize that clicking +1 or Like buttons, and leaving comments on product pages will be used in all sorts of ways. Ads are how these companies make money. You don't have to like it – that's just the way it is, and the way it has been, for years. 

As such, if opting out of Shared Endorsement's isn't enough, you always have the right to stop interacting with products and services you don't want to be associated with. Nobody's holding a gun to your head, saying, "Leave a review for Coyote Tacos and Burritos, or else!" That would be ridiculous – just slightly more ridiculous than discovering that social networks mine the content you generate for ads.

Even tech-savvy people who should have a firm understanding of exactly how visible they are online sometimes seem caught off guard, which brings us to our second example.

Earlier this month, Reddit's Silk Road community erupted in panic following the FBI's takedown of the online drug bazaar and arrested its alleged founder, Robert William Ulbricht. The community was a fascinating place during those first few days, with users losing their virtual shit over the too-real possibility that they might soon get a heavy knock on the door from a man with a badge and a gun. High stakes, high drama, good times for onlookers like myself and other journalists who quoted users' reactions to the Silk Road bust. But late on October 2, hours after the FBI announced Ulbricht's arrest, /r/SilkRoad went private – nobody could access it without an invite. By the next morning, however, the community was public again.

The reason for the brief blackout? According to one community moderator, it was because BuzzFeedBusiness Insider, and the BBC had, to greater and lesser degrees, published members' usersnames and quoted them in articles. Um, what?

I appreciate the sensitive circumstances Silk Road users are in – they were buying illegal drugs online, and now the FBI is presumably breathing down their necks. I can only imagine how much that sucks. What I fail to fathom is how these same people – people who presumably know and appreciate an above-average amount about online anonymity – can turn around and talk about using the Silk Road on a site that literally calls itself "the front page of the Internet," then flip out when journalists make reference to what they're saying.

Nobody was hacked. No rules were broken. Nobody was overheard saying things they shouldn't have said. (Okay, that last one is debatable.) The comments were posted on a public website that, of course, anyone with an Internet connection can read, share, reference, or turn into a song, if one were so inclined. How is that a surprise?

I'm as big a privacy advocate as you'll find, but this is the year 2013. Most of the stuff we do on the Web – especially on social networks (and, yes, Reddit is a kind of social network) – is public, and can be co-opted in any number of ways, by other users, journalists, or the companies that build the platforms you use. If you don't want your words, pictures, or names to be exploited, keep them off the Web. It's as simple as that.


This article was originally posted on Digital Trends

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