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    Lauren Gelman: Privacy, Free Speech, and ‘Blurry-Edged’ Social Networks

    Lauren Gelman, former Executive Director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, published an article a few months ago concerning privacy rights. “Privacy, Free Speech, and ‘Blurry-Edged’ Social Networks” notes:

    Every day users upload personally identifiable pictures, movies, data, and stories to the web. A complex and often relatively complete “digital dossier” of some individuals can be assembled from their up- loads. These are not dossiers compiled by covert spies skulking in dark corners with penlight cameras, nor by government agents scouring the data files held by big data aggregators. Rather, these dossiers are the result of sometimes extraordinary personal accounts of life’s ups and downs told in the first person. Although some people would not share these stories with individuals they had not known, many individuals do post detailed accounts of their lives on a medium that is accessible to millions. […]

    Some content on the Internet is not written for me, yet I can still access it. Which begs the question: why do people post content on a medium available to the whole world when that content is not intended for the whole world?

    The answer lies in what I call “blurry-edged social networks.” A simple non-Internet example of this is listing one’s phone number in the white pages. In general, individuals do not want to receive calls from people they do not want to talk to. This would suggest that every residential phone customer would want to have an unlisted number and may even pay for such a privilege. However, the problem with that approach is that it is impossible to know in advance everyone who fits into the category of people with whom one does not wish to speak. To put it another way, the social cost of not receiving phone calls from someone you fail to identify a priori as being in your social network outweighs the harm of having to answer the phone and hang up on telemarketers.

    Of course, some people do have unlisted phone numbers. I am one such person. I assume that people who want to reach me will find a way, or that the cost of a failed connection is worth the avoiding the potential harm from unsolicited calls. The cost-benefit calculation that is part of this decision depends on how we rate our ability to identify the set of people with whom we do want to speak.

    This same calculus may be driving many of people to post personal details on their blogs, pictures on Flickr, movies on YouTube, and place material on the other social networking utilities Web 2.0 has made available. […]

    We thus find ourselves in a world where there are strong incentives for people to post personal information about themselves and others in a form made available broadly, in a medium where all data is saved and easily searchable. Opportunities to profess and protect the individual’s privacy interest, however, are limited. This Article asks whether we can protect the value captured by exploiting the blurry edge of our social networks while still maintaining the free speech protections and innovative capacity of today’s Internet.

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