Big brother is watching me

A lot of different, seemingly unrelated, things are happening right now in the tech world. Looking through different feeds most of the discussions are about:

The mash-up of content seems to be important right now. I see it everywhere. People love the idea of taking different, seemingly unrelated, bits of data to mash it up into something new and unexpected.  The latest example being the Google – Twitter super Tuesday election mashup. My tech friends all talk excitingly about the possibilities of mash ups. I seldom get enthusiastic about these development. Just because it is technically possible to combine data doesn’t mean I have to like it. It takes more than technical miracles to make me start using this stuff, daily, and integrate it into my life.

Thinking about that I realised that in one area I do like mash-ups. I often write blog posts that way. I read a lot of stuff, have all kinds of experiences with family, friends, at work, and after a while a story seems to develop itself until it draws enough attention to be written down. Often triggered by observations from the people I follow on blogs, an observation or analysis can kick start a series of thoughts that lead to a new post. And I’m not talking about the stories on TechMeme, TechCrunch or any of the other major “breaking news” blogs. No, these things happen most of the time on blogs where people actually analyse behavior, and have something to say about that.

Why am I writing all of this down? Well, because a series of unrelated events and stories I have been reading the past days have led me to write down the title of this post “Big brother is watching me”. It started with a post from one of my favorite pattern hounds, Rolf Skyberg (I’m not anywhere near his capabilities to analyse and detect patterns), who talked about an identity theft that happened to him. In a post called “W3Top.org is stealing Twitter updates” Rolf wrote:

Apparently, W3Top.org thinks it’s perfectly appropriate to take my Twitter updates, post them as part of their “100% Free online dating and matchmaking service for singles”, and create a bogus account for me with bogus friends and an even more bogus location.

He goes on and asks himself the following question:

So this leaves us with the question, who really owns my Twitters? I wrote them, posted them to Twitter, and merrily went long my way.

Twitter is quite clear about copyright of twitters in their Terms of Service:

We claim no intellectual property rights over the material you provide to the Twitter service. Your profile and materials uploaded remain yours.

According to the Berne copyright convention, anything privately created is held in copyright by the creator. Brad Templeton explains this here on his page of 10 copyright myths:

For example, in the USA, almost everything created privately and originally after April 1, 1989 is copyrighted and protected whether it has a notice or not.

So we have a copyright violation (I never granted permission for Xasa/Bitacle to republish my works), but we also have something bordering on identity theft.

By republishing my content along with my known username and avatar image, they are implying that I support and endorse their service. This is, by the way exactly what they want people to think.

Because who wants to use a dating service that nobody else actually uses?

I went on and was overwhelmed by the number of “breaking news” posts about the Microsoft bid on Yahoo, the consequences and possible counter-strikes of Google. Ways for Yahoo to get out of a possible deal with Microsoft, US elections with Google and Twitter doing all kinds of data mash ups. Both Google and Yahoo going after Microsoft Outlook with their own upgrades of e-mail packages. Google entering the mobile market in China, and so on and so on.

So the major companies are fighting it out in the open again. A lot of suggestions have been made about the  strategy behind it all. I even made some observations about that myself suggesting that Microsoft and Yahoo could easily build the largest social network ever via integration and innovation of their e-mail services and that even Google might get a bit nervous about that. Robert Scoble seems to think different. He suggests that Google is stirring up the fire to draw attention away from their attempts to jump into the lucrative mobile market.

Then I came across a really good post by Zephoria. In her post called “Just because we can doesn’t mean we should” she talks about the ease at which techies are creating mash-ups without thinking about the possible consequences for the user. She says:

I am worried about the tech industry rhetoric around exposing user data and connections. This is another case of a decision dilemma concerning capability and responsibility. I said this ages ago wrt Facebook’s News Feed, but it is once again relevant with Google’s Social Graph API announcement. In both cases, the sentiment is that this is already public data and the service is only making access easier and more efficient for the end user. I totally get where Mark and Brad are coming at with this. I deeply respect both of them, but I also think that they live in a land of privilege where the consequences that they face when being exposed are relatively minor. In other words, they can eat meals of only chocolate because they aren’t diabetic.

Read her article, it’s well worth your time. The clashes between the big companies is a fight over two things. Data and control. Who has most data and who can control it best. It is what makes Google a fortune, it is what Yahoo wanted to make a fortune out, and it is what Microsoft wants to get his hands on. And if you thought things were all quite with Facebook, it turns out they have added a few new “features” below the radar. One of them is a feature that can suggest friends to you. Facebook can do this because they “own” everything we naive users put into our Facebook accounts. I think it is a pretty meaningless feature. If I needed advice on who should be my friend, I might as well join a dating service.

But it also helps me remind myself that free always comes at a cost. Behind every free service there are hurdles of eager beaver marketeers paying huge amounts of money to collect and mash up your personal data. This giving them the false illusion that if they have access to my personal data in the social networks I participate in, their message will reach me more effectively. Marketeers are idiots of course. They shouldn’t be thinking about that. they should be thinking about providing me value, but that’s another story.

If this era on the web is to be characterised then I would say it is the era where everyone is fighting over data and data control. Big brother is watching me, with the difference that there isn’t one big brother. There are uncountable big brothers, with a few major ones that have their claws into probably 80% of our web experiences. I agree with Zephoria that this is all happening too fast without enough thinking about the consequences for the user. She ends her article with:

Just because people can profile, stereotype, and label people doesn’t mean that they should. Just because people can surveil those around them doesn’t mean that they should. Just because parents can stalk their children doesn’t mean that they should. So why on earth do we believe that just because technology can expose people means that it should?

I don’t think the collecting and mashing up of personal data can be stopped anymore. We have all been drawn into an addiction of “free”services and we are unable to get out of that advertisement trap. Web entrepreneurs can’t think up any new buisness models to compete with the free model. But it might come at great cost. I want the right to own my own data, and I understand that it comes with my own responsibility to control and use that data. I doubt any of the data hoggers is really there to protect my privacy. That is fine really. As long as we all understand the consequences of this, and we all make sure to expose only those parts of ourselves that we feel comfortable with. Remember, big brother is not only watching me, but he is also on to you!

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About vanelsas

See my about page, http://vanelsas.wordpress.com/about/ ;-)
This entry was posted in Big Brother is watching you, data mash up, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, privacy, Robert Scoble, Rolf Skyberg, Twitter, Yahoo, Zephoria and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Big brother is watching me

  1. Kaushik Ghosh says:

    We are witnessing an interesting overlap of the boundaries that separate prying and collaborating (directly or indirectly). It is annoying to see that a Facebook app knows what I am reading now…..but satisfying when I can reuse a travel itinerary someone else had used…. I think it is just different ways of looking at the same information. isn’t it?
    I would like to explore more on this…..thanks for the head start…:)

  2. Alexander van Elsas says:

    @Kaushik the examples you provide are pretty harmless. But for some people the information that is gathered about them, often without them realising it, can be harmfull. A simple example might be a boy graduating from college and going to his first job interview. The person interviewing him might have googled a few pictures of him being drunk at a party which probably do not set a good example.
    But things can get much more complicated if religion, believes, relationships, political views etc can also be found on the web. In any democracy we need to be careful that the weakest, or in this case perhaps, the naivest people do not become a victim of the fact that so much information is available about them.

  3. Pingback: Réseaux sociaux: news (12/02/08) « pintiniblog

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