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An Open Web

Your Rights and Freedoms

While many of us come to take convenient and reliable Internet access for granted, there is a great disparity in access dependent on socioeconomic and geographic factors. Getting connected and the 'right to access' is a big issue in itself and the subject of much debate. Recently, some governments are taking a stand to support Internet access as a basic principle for its citizenry-almost or explicitly stated in terms of rights. In 2009 for example, Finland passed a law guaranteeing every person in the country 1 megabit broadband access. Moreover, the European Union acknowledges the right to freedom of expression and information, often interpreted to cover access to the internet.

In the U.S.A, Jeff Jarvis in his Bill of Rights for Cyberspace argues, "We acknowledge the limitations on freedom of speech but they must defined as narrowly as possible, lest we find ourselves operating under a lowest common denominator of offense. Freedom is our default."1

Conversely, numerous governments like France's threaten this choice with laws like HADOPI, which at first drafting mandated a restriction of internet usage upon mere accusation of copyright infringement. Without judicial review, the government could remove a citizen's ability to enter the public sphere of the Web, not to mention carry out crucial activities there such as voting, paying taxes, and in general engaging in the polity.

While these are very interesting topics and there are many interesting sides to the debate about 'the right to access', we see this as a topic for another book. While we believe the Web has a positive utility and we hope as many people as possible can access the Web if they choose, we want to restrict our arguments to what happens 'within' this online space.

Control of Your Information

On the Web we can take action along a spectrum; sometimes our activities are very low-barrier and simple, such as viewing a webpage or repeating a message. Other actions require higher levels of engagement and resources. This spectrum of participation is yours to control, and we believe the personal information you pass along the way is yours to give and take as you choose. In this section, we'll touch on privacy, anonymity, and data portability-important aspects for controlling your information and participation.

Let's start with an example. There is a dissonance between the general "sharing" functionality of social networks and the privacy settings of these networks. If you select your privacy settings to permit friends of friends to see your information, that means friends decide with you who is going to have access to your information. Or, if you share a link on a friends profile, that friend is going to decide with you who is going to see that information. This means that sharing in social networks is a collaborative activity. However, setting your privacy "preferences" is an individual action.

Facebook, one of the largest social networks at this time, offers the the following privacy policy: WE want YOU to have CONTROL over YOUR INFORMATION. However, to manage your privacy on Facebook, you will need to navigate through 50 settings with more than 170 options to tweak it to your preferences.

Facebook tells us that we individually own, control, and protect our data on a collaborative sharing space. On the other hand, Facebook collects all sorts of information about you from other sites and applications. They also share this data with third parties. And they do not let you fully control this. It is exactly such discrepancies that have to be worked out in a future web.

This battle doesn't end with merely the sharing of photos or statuses on social networks. Many users online are deeply concerned about protecting their identity. It is relatively easy to implement the technical means to avoid being identified, whatever your reason may be. You should have the choice to use the Web anonymously and to be aware of how services collect and use your data. You also have the choice not to participate.

Lastly, data portability is an important issue as it allows you an essential control lever. You should have the ability to back up your data or share your data with other users, software, or online services.2 It's your data after all. A network service should provide users the ability to move their data in a format that is as open and compatible as possible with other software and services.

Contemplating the future of privacy, anonymity, and data portability online, Evan Prodromou asks, "Can we make working on network services more like visiting a friend's house than like being locked in a jail? Time will tell whether we can craft a culture around Free Network Services that is respectful of users' autonomy, such that we can use other computers with some measure of confidence."

Exit

We also believe YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO LEAVE an online service or social network AT ANYTIME. Many online services make it difficult for you to delete your account, while others do not allow you to leave at all. Exit is a very important feature for social networks on the open Web, not just as a matter of courtesy, but for other more tangible reasons. For example, it is easy to understand why it should be easy for anyone to delete their account if they feel this information for whatever reason puts them at personal risk. However, many social networks do not facilitate your ability to leave. In fact, their business models rely on accumulating accounts and user data.

Within the menu system of Facebook you can deactivate your Facebook account but not delete it. Deleting is possible, but it is not obvious how you do it. If you do manage to deactivate your Facebook account, all your information is still saved on the company's servers. Facebook positions this as if they are doing you a favor, just in case you later decide to re-activate your account. To re-activate your account you simply log in again, and everything will be just the way you left it.

The good news is that you can delete you account. But finding out how is not easy. Also, as more and more services implement Facebook Connect as their way to authenticate users, you build up reliance on this integrated system of closed services, and you can find it very difficult to leave indeed.

The inability to easily remove accounts has forced some unusual exit strategies, largely artistic, but with real world consequence.3 But we shouldn't have to go this far and commit virtual suicide. Leaving should be easy, it should be in your hands, and you should be able to decide what you take with you and what you leave behind.

  1. http://www.buzzmachine.com/2010/03/27/a-bill-of-rights-in-cyberspace/^
  2. Google's Data Liberation project offers an interesting example of data portability. Their policy states, "Users should be able to control the data they store in any of Google's products. Our team's goal is to make it easier to move data in and out." http://www.dataliberation.org^
  3. The Web 2.0 Suicide Machine and Seppukoo.com are artistic viral suicide services based on the most popular social networking website, Facebook although they also work for Twitter, LinkedIn and MySpace accounts. Both services use slightly different strategies to 'kill' an account. Both Seppukoo and the Suicide machine have faced legal consequences for their actions. Facebook sent a cease and desist letter to both for their efforts. http://www.seppukoo.com/docs/seppukoo_cease_desist.pdf and http://suicidemachine.org/download/Web_2.0_Suicide_Machine.pdf^

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