Stephen Baker

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danah boyd: Who benefits from Web privacy?

December 11, 2009Privacy

Just watched a very provocative talk by Microsoft's danah boyd at LeWeb. (Here's the text, video below) She shifts the usual perspective on the privacy debate and asks if society should be paying more attention to people who appear to be crying out for help on line.

Back in the '60s and '70s, she says, adults enjoyed a right to privacy, which sometimes included spousal abuse in the privacy of the home. If wives and other victims didn't call for help or circulate showing conspicuous bruises, it might have seemed that domestic abuse wasn't a big problem. Now we know more about it. But does that mean that it's growing, or that people's privacy is being invaded?

Much the same is happening online. Some parents, boyd says, are encountering online bullying and blaming the Internet for it. But this bullying, according to boyd (who doesn't capitalize her name), only makes visible what has long existed in the analog world as spoken taunts and rumors.

So the question is whether society has an obligation to pay attention to the pain expressed publicly on the Internet, the pain, anger, and alienation. If people are crying out on the networks we circulate on and we turn away, are we like the New Yorkers who allegedly ignored the cries for help from Kitty Genovese as she was stabbed to death 45 years ago? "What does it mean to create digital eyes on the street?" boyd asks.

And how would we pay attention? Would we send bots crawling through MySpace and blogs, focusing on patterns and key words associated with pain, suicide and abuse? This could be a privacy nightmare, and boyd doesn't broach that angle. But it's something society is sure to be wrestling with.

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