Category Archives: privacy

“Global Network Initiative”

Thanks to Veronica I learned about the “Global Network Initiative” a few hours before it hit my RSS feeds coming from all over the web.  If you haven’t heard about it yet, it is a consortium of universities, NGOs, and industry players (noticeably Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo) that teamed up to suggest a code of practice to protect free speech as the flow of information becomes more global and more complex.  Here is what they wrote on the initiative’s website:

“From the Americas to Europe to the Middle East to Africa and Asia, companies in the information and communications industries face increasing government pressure to comply with domestic laws and policies that require censorship and disclosure of personal information in ways that conflict with internationally recognized human rights laws and standards.

The Initiative is founded upon new Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy – supported by specific implementation commitments and a framework for accountability and learning – that provide a systematic approach for companies, NGOs, investors, academics and others to work together in resisting efforts by governments that seek to enlist companies in acts of censorship and surveillance that violate international standards.

For me, this announcement triggered a couple of thoughts.

First, I think this is an interesting example of the centrality of information in social and political processes.  It is also a good example of the complexity of relationships between politics, law, and business on a global scale.  International corporations acting in the field of media and information are caught in a situation where they have to navigate between the global nature of their business; the political, social, cultural, and legal characteristics of their country of origin (US in many cases); and the same characteristics and demands of the localities they are acting in.  This is definitely not a simple task.  There is also little doubt that initiatives such as this one reinforce (Western) principles of freedom of speech and privacy in debates with governments that do not necessarily approve those.

Second, I wonder what is the business interest of commercial entities in this initiative.  Of course there is a chance that they join the initiative for ideological reasons, but I doubt they would do it if such a move would compromise their long-term strategic objectives.  In Israel, in the 1960’s the journalistic community established the Israeli Press Council (HE), which since then focuses on two main issues: (1) guarding freedom of expression and (2) observing ethical behavior of its members.  One of the main reasons behind establishing this voluntary organization was a preemptive strike against the political apparatus making ethical principles into laws.  In other words, the media chose to regulate themselves instead of being regulated from outside.  So, following this story, I wonder if there is a similar sentiment behind the “Global Network Initiative” – the companies volunteer to self-monitor themselves according to a set of values that they decide on (in consultation with other like-minded bodies), before they are forced to adhere to some sort of external regulation whether on the local or the global levels.

What do you think?

November 1 update:

Here is Micael Zimmer’s take on this initiative.

MLM on Facebook

Recently, I saw a number of my Facebook contacts (actually quite a large number, something like 18) becoming “friends” with Alberto Floro Da Silva.  This triggered me to share this story and a few thoughts on our online habits.

A while ago I got a Facebook friend request from someone named Alberto Floro Da Silva.  Although I think my Facebook profile is not the most restricted in terms of privacy, I do not usually add total stranger to my friends list.  In most cases I have met most of my contacts or have mutual acquaintances who think we should maintain a linkage.  I would almost never add a complete stranger to my list.

Alberto and I had indeed a number of people as mutual Facebook friends.  However the age difference between him and those acquaintances was quite significant and I could not identify a clear pattern of relationship (geographical, event, etc.).  So, I emailed Alberto asking whether or not we actually know each other and got a reply from his saying that no, but he usually adds all the friends of his friends and would appreciate a link to me as well. For a few moments, I was puzzled, and then decided to accept Alberto’s request.  My decision was based on some observations I had about various patterns of using platforms such as Facebook among people of different ages and different cultural backgrounds.  “What can be wrong,” I thought to myself, “that’s the way he is using Facebook and there will be no harm or cost in adding him.”

Apparently I was wrong.

A few days after adding Alberto, I got the following message from Alberto:

DIMA EPSTEIN, it could please analyze this presentation of technology for environment . it informs its research please. grateful alberto – Brazil

When you follow the link it shows you a short video about global warming and a call to join a business that “will change your life and help fighting the global warming” (more or less in these words).  No additional information is available on the website, only a form to join.  To me it looked fishy.  I emailed Alberto asking for explanations, but never heard back.  A few days later, I removed him from my friends list.

Now, after seeing over a dozen of my friends befriending Alberto I went on and researched a little bit more about the mysterious link.  Apparently, this is a company in Florida that distributes some sort of engine performance enhancing add-on, which uses multi-level marketing (MLM) as its marketing vehicle.  I didn’t spend too much time on the investigation, but the brief one I did, draws a picture of a pretty sketchy enterprise.  Most of the search results for FFI (the commonly known name for the company) bring up web pages of distributors such as that of Alberto.  Interestingly enough, the only link to the full name of the company on the first page of Google results is a sponsored linked to some kid of MLM clearing house.

If you search for the full name (“Fuel Freedom International”), there is a rather badly written Wikipedia article about it with sort of an editorial war going on between people who are pushing the product and everybody else.  There is of course the company’s website, which has more marketing texts, but little substance.  And if you really have time, there are dozens of online debates (such as this one and this one) and YouTube videos, debating whether or not this is scam.

The more I looked into it, the more fascinated I was by the phenomenon of how multi-level marketing is (ab)using the online tools.  I could, in fact, write an entire post looking into the debates about the authenticity of this product (from my short review, I remain skeptical about it), but I would to limit myself to an observation of to how Alberto is exploiting our reputation and our “befriending” habits to promote his business, whether it is legitimate or not, on networking sites (yes, he has profiles in more than one).

FacebookMy lesson from this story is that even though I treat Facebook more as a self-updating address book, I should be more careful with how I use it.  In the short period of time Alberto was my Facebook “friend” this fact might have encourage other people on my list to befriend him.  But not only that, having my name on his “friends list” probably gave more credibility to his message (i.e. product and marketing strategy he is using) in the eyes of people who trust me (just as having people I know on his list, gave him more credibility in my eyes).

This later point is what I think we, online users, should be really thoughtful about – having a publicly observable link to a person, shares some of our credibility with him/her.  Bringing our offline perceptions and habbits to the online environment, we tend to trust people referred by people we know.  However, the weight of relationship or the referral in online environment appears to be significantly less than that in the offline life.  The combination of the weight we give to referral whether it is online or offline, and the lightness with which we provide those referrals online (voluntarily or not), create quite a dangerous exposure that can, in fact, cost someone money, or other resources.  I find it really interesting, and I am sure, somebody out there is already studying it :)

To wrap it up, please be thoughtful when you befriend people online and if you had asimilar story, please share it in the comments.

A strong sense of deja vu

I am sitting now at a conference on privacy in social networks, organized by the Netvision Institute at TAU.  The first part of the conference brought a strong sense of deja vu.  It focused primarily on the “danger” of fictive identities online and the legal implications of it.  I felt like reading Sherry Turkle again, but found it very difficult to connect to the speakers (particularly one of them who drifted into talking about a digital camera that can see through your clothes).

Gladly, i wasn’t alone, and another person in the audience asked about the repercussions of actually sharing the real information.  How come we came back to discussing the “danger” of the fictitious, while the potential harm of the real is much more tangible?  The speakers didn’t have concrete answers.  However, as if to prove my line of thought, the current session is focusing on issues of dealing with real information and privacy issues.  Interestingly, this session consists only of industry people who actually build these social networks.