understanding the importance and impact of anonymity and authentication in a networked society
navigation menu top border

.:home:.     .:project:.    .:people:.     .:research:.     .:blog:.     .:resources:.     .:media:.

navigation menu bottom border
main display area top border

« August 2006 | Main | October 2006 »

Billy Bragg Challenges User Agreements

posted by:jennifer barrigar // 09:04 AM // September 27, 2006 // General

In May 2006, Billy Bragg removed his music from MySpace.com because of concerns that the language of the user agreement appeared to confer overly broad rights over content to the company (see http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/31/business/media/31bragg.html?ex=1311998400&en=47cf184652d2e263&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss).
In June 2006 MySpace clarified the language of its agreement, though they made no reference to Bragg or his concerns (see http://collect.myspace.com/misc/terms.html?z=1)

Now Billy has a new target -- MTV Flux (see http://www.flux.com/). Click here http://www.billybragg.com/ to see Billy's challenge to MTV over its user agreement language

| Comments (0) |


posted by:Greg Hagen // 11:59 PM // September 19, 2006 // ID TRAIL MIX


Privacy and network neutrality are not usually discussed in the same context but the two are related. Network neutrality is concerned, at a minimum, with the ability of internet users to communicate amongst themselves without their communication being unjustifiably blocked or degraded. As Tim Berners-Lee has described the concept, “[The internet] must not discriminate against particular hardware, software, underlying network, language, culture, disability, or against particular types of data.” Network neutrality can include other conditions as well.

The debate regarding the extent to which network neutrality is justified usually revolves around economic concerns, such as whether abandoning network neutrality will hamper innovation on the internet platform. The purpose of this note is to emphasize that, independently of economic considerations, the discriminatory behaviour mentioned by Berners-Lee has implications for personal privacy which must also be assessed. The basic point is that in order to block, degrade or otherwise shape certain kinds of traffic an ISP must identify the nature of that traffic through inspection of packets of private communications. The deeper the inspection, the more potentially privacy-invasive.

Some examples will help illustrate the kind of activities that are of concern. A well known Canadian example of blocking occurred when Telus blocked a website operated by members of the Telecommunications Workers Union which was on strike.

Another example concerns the potential for an ISP to degrade the service of a third party, say Skype, that uses the ISPs network when the ISP itself offers competing voice services, or has contracted with, say, Yahoo to deliver priority voice services. The Telus wireless Hotspot webpage notes:

You cannot use a TELUS Mobility Hotspot to send or receive a VoIP call because VoIP calls could disrupt or interfere with the Hotspot service.

The webpage does not elaborate on how VoIP could interfere with the wireless service. Hotspot subscribers are left to wonder whether there is some technical foundation for this claim or whether Telus is simply attempting to prevent the use competitive voice services such as Skype. The author has not encountered any problems in using Skype at a Telus Hotspot.

A trickier example occurs when a cable company provides a higher quality of service for its VoIP service than a competing VoIP service which uses that cable company as an internet access provider, degrading the competitors’ services by implication. For example, Shaw uses only its private network for its digital phone on the basis that time-sensitive voice packets need the bandwidth provided by its network that otherwise might be dropped if the bandwidth was shared with the public internet. Daniel J. Weitzner has argued that this may be the kind of case where network neutrality requires Shaw to offer the use of its private network to competing VoIP services. Yet, when Shaw provided a $10 quality of service enhancement for its subscribers using other VoIP services, Vonage Canada complained that the surcharge was a thinly veiled tax and "Shaw's VoIP tax is an unfair attempt to drive up the price of competing VoIP services to protect its own high-priced service…." Evaluating Vonage’s claim depends upon the proper valuation of the quality of service enhancement, a difficult task for consumers.

Vint Cerf, one of the inventors of the internet offered comments in November 2005 to a proposed draft U.S. Bill to Create a Statutory Framework For Internet Protocol and Broadband Services that nicely explains some motivations behind network neutrality:

The remarkable social impact and economic success of the Internet is in many ways directly attributable to the architectural characteristics that were part of its design. The Internet was designed with no gatekeepers over new content or services. The Internet is based on a layered, end-to-end model that allows people at each level of the network to innovate free of any central control. By placing intelligence at the edges rather than control in the middle of the network, the Internet has created a platform for innovation. This has led to an explosion of offerings – from VOIP to 802.11x wi-fi to blogging – that might never have evolved had central control of the network been required by design.
My fear is that, as written, this bill would do great damage to the Internet as we know it. Enshrining a rule that broadly permits network operators to discriminate in favor of certain kinds of services and to potentially interfere with others would place broadband operators in control of online activity. Allowing broadband providers to segment their IP offerings and reserve huge amounts of bandwidth for their own services will not give consumers the broadband Internet our country and economy need. Many people will have little or no choice among broadband operators for the foreseeable future, implying that such operators will have the power to exercise a great deal of control over any applications placed on the network.

Similarly, Tim Berners Lee commented on video and on a blog that: “[w]hen I invented the Web, I didn't have to ask anyone's permission. Now, hundreds of millions of people are using it freely. I am worried that that is going to end in the USA.”

It would end if some ISPs had their way. For example, Ed Whitacre, CEO of AT&T in the U.S., declared:

Now what [Google. MSN, Vonage and others] would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes? The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!

The U.S. telecommunications company, Verizon, has made much the same complaint.

How has this state of affairs come about? The recent Canadian Telecommunications Review Panel Report rightly pointed out that

…the separation between the applications and content layers of telecommunications services, as well as between these layers and the underlying network layers that provide physical connections and transport services result in a fundamental change in the structure of the telecommunications industry. Content providers do not need to be applications or network providers and applications providers no longer need to be network providers.

ISPs are now attempting to regain control over access to content and applications that they lost as a result of the separation of layers on the internet. “Access providers thus leverage their market power in the Internet access market to try to extract more profit, either directly or in partnership with a preferred third party, in the applications market.”

The CBC recently noted that, although “Internet video provides a natural opportunity for a public broadcaster such as CBC/Radio-Canada to significantly extend the reach of its video services and thereby make high quality Canadian video programming available on a national and global basis,” “[t]he business case analysis for Internet video is complicated by the fact that suppliers of broadband connections may also have incentives to control the bandwidth available for Internet video.” It explains:

Canadian cable companies engage in "bandwidth shaping" which allocates different levels of transmission capacity to different services according to the operational preferences of the cable company. This type of bandwidth shaping can ensure efficient use of transmission capacity. It can also ensure that Internet video by third parties does not become a threat to the business of the cable company, whether it be the delivery of traditional television programming to cable subscribers, VOD or the distribution of cable company-owned Internet video services.

As a result of the kind of problems described above, the Report of the Telecommunications Review Panel recently recommended amending the Telecommunications Act “to confirm and protect the right of Canadian consumers to access publicly available Internet applications and content of their choice by means of all public telecommunications networks providing access to the Internet” Of course, this is subject to reasonable exceptions. Given the difficulty of enacting network neutrality legislation in the U.S., the susceptibility of the Canadian government to industry lobbying (as evidenced in the case of copyright reform) and the perceived bias of some Canadian legislators, such an amendment might be difficult to achieve.

A complementary approach to the network neutrality issue is to emphasize the privacy implications of abandoning network neutrality. Unfortunately, on the rare occasion that privacy implications are recognized, they are usually shunted aside. For example, at a discussion of the Internet2 Consortium’s QoS Working Group on implementing traffic shaping at its 208 member Universities, the question “Wouldn’t shaping traffic somehow be an invasion of user privacy?” was raised. The privacy concern was dismissed rather quickly.

First, few schools explicitly guarantee users any formal level of privacy. Second, shaping traffic is a non-intrusive intervention relative to many other options, such as turning copyright infringers over to the authorities. Third, traffic shaping can be done via technical means and on an aggregated/ anonymous basis, if privacy is an issue.

Even Universal Music, in a discussion of its automated notice and taken down system appears to recognize that packet inspection has privacy implications but prefers to place those issues at the doorstep of Universities who would use their software.

In general, the more specific the blocking rule is, the greater the privacy implications. Each university deploying ATS must decide the appropriate balance between privacy and blocking for their application.

Of course there are legitimate reasons to monitor packets. The post office would not know where to send your mail unless they could read the address on the envelope and the same goes for packets over the internet. Other legitimate non-commercial reasons for monitoring content could concern, for example, national security and lawful investigations of criminal activity where there is a warrant.

Nevertheless, traffic shaping could be privacy – intrusive, especially if it required deep inspection of packets, even if done on an aggregated and anonymous basis. For example, Allot’s deep packet inspection technology allows ISPs to identify and classify data packets to know usage patterns concerning P2P, VoIP, online games, email, video and so on, potentially violating the privacy of persons. The conception of privacy that is needed to protect us from such intrusions has a closer relationship to the conceptions of privacy protected by criminal law, the tort of breach of privacy, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international human rights instruments than to the protection of personal information required by PIPEDA.

While this approach emphasizes the protection of a form of privacy other than the unauthorized use of personal information as regulated under PIPEDA, the CRTC is in a position to regulate such intrusions into private communications. Under Section 7 of the Canadian Telecommunications Act, one of the objectives of telecommunications policy is contributing to the protection of the privacy of persons. The CRTC already has jurisdiction over privacy issues related to the operation of telecommunications networks. (The Panel has further recommended that the CRTC be empowered to directly regulate all telecommunications service providers to the extent necessary to implement the Canadian telecommunications policy objectives.)

On its own view, as stated in Telecom Decision CRTC 2003-33 [Reference: 8665-C12-14/01 and 8665-B20-01/00. Confidentiality provisions of Canadian Carriers] the Commission said at paragraph 23, that “… its jurisdiction in this matter [of privacy] stems not from the PIPED Act, but from the Telecommunications Act, and that in exercising its discretionary powers pursuant to the Telecommunications Act, it may apply different standards than those contemplated by the PIPED Act.” Although the Federal Court of Appeal considered the potential of varied standards startling, it would allow the CRTC to deal with privacy issues not covered by the information privacy approach embodied in PIPEDA but well-recognized in other areas of law.

In short, it would be useful for the CRTC to consider how it might further the objective of the protection of personal privacy in the context of packet inspection and traffic shaping with the result that it assists in preserving network neutrality.

Greg Hagen is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Calgary.

| Comments (1) |

Seeking NSA Romantic Encounters; Not Public Humiliation

posted by:Jeremy Hessing-Lewis // 01:39 PM // September 15, 2006 // Commentary &/or random thoughts | Digital Identity Management | TechLife

After replies to a faked Craigslist personal posting were outed on a website this week, a minor controversy has been brewing over the legality of the posting and the impacts on online trust. The Globe and Mail covered the story here.

The personal ad described a 27 year old woman with long brown hair. In fact, the posting was by a Seattle area graphic designer named Jason Fortuny. He collected the replies, including contact information and images of men in various stages of undress, and posted them to a parody website. This breach of trust, while clearly unethical, doesn't seem to break any laws.

It will be interesting to see how this plays-out. At the very least, you'd think the victims would have a copyright argument. For now, it would be best to follow some age-old advice and "keep your pants on."

| Comments (0) |

Closing the analog hole

posted by:James Fung // 09:06 PM // September 14, 2006 //

http://felixtang.org/?q=node/11 writes about current DRM technology legislation. In particular, the closing of the analog hole. I read once that just as its legal to record your TV signals with a VCR, its also legal to record HDTV. However its illegal to produce a device which records HDTV. With all the talk about "anti-circumvention" laws, is this type of law "circumventing" the legality of recording HDTV? This article discusses some of the issues in this area.

| Comments (0) |


posted by:Carole Lucock // 11:59 PM // September 12, 2006 // ID TRAIL MIX


In 1787-1788 a series of articles under the pseudonym ‘Publius’ [i] appeared in a number of State newspapers, primarily those of New York. The articles presented arguments in favour of the ratification of the U.S. constitution and were subsequently published together as the now famous ‘federalist papers.’ Subsequently, the federalist papers were attributed to Alexander Hamilton, James Madison or John Jay. [ii]

Publius wrote at a time of heated political debate about the content and ratification of the U.S. constitution, a time in which a veritable cast of characters were writing pseudonymously: ‘Brutus’, ‘Cato’, ‘Centinel’, ‘John DeWhitt’ and the ‘Federal Farmer’ – to name a few and who are known as the anti-federalists [iii] – wrote against ratification, with Brutus, in particular, engaging in critical debate with Publius.

One could engage many lines of enquiry concerning this rich and important discourse, carried on as it were under the veil of a pseudonym, or perhaps behind its character. I am interested in the entry of Publius into law’s contemporary discourse concerning the pseudonym. In particular, the jurisprudential arguments drawing on the pseudonym Publius (and similar pseudonyms) to support the ‘right to’ anonymous speech on the basis that some peril might befall authors if they wrote under their ‘real’ name. I question whether law’s characterization of the political speech pseudonym adequately accounts for the phenomena or sufficiently justifies a space for pseudonymous speech.

The U.S. Supreme Court case, McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission [iv], is often cited as supporting the ‘right to’ anonymous speech, based on the guarantees of the First Amendment. McIntyre uses the example of Publius and other pseudonyms as supporting an ‘honorable’ tradition of pseudonymous speech. The primary rationale given is a prudential one: the anonymity afforded by the use of the pseudonym is necessary to protect the author from untoward consequences. It is this justification that appears to dominate the subsequent jurisprudence and provides the ‘strong’ case for allowing a space for anonymous speech. This view fails to give appropriate recognition and scope to the complexity of pseudonym use and the purposes leading someone to use a pseudonym. While it is almost certainly the case that at given times in history – including revolutionary, colonial America – there have been prudential reasons for adopting a pseudonym in order to conceal one’s ‘real’ identity, this is but one rather narrow justification in support of its use. Thomas, in his concurring decision in McIntryre, provides an illuminating history of pseudonym use pre and post the ratification of the constitution. This history reveals pseudonym use at the time as a far more multi-dimensional phenomenon and opens a window to consideration of the dramatic, playful and transformative elements associated with the choice and use of a pseudonym.

At the time that Publius and other pseudonyms wrote, it seems likely that their ‘real’ names were known to a limited extent (based on common speculation and actual knowledge within trusted circles) and certainly in many cases became known while the authors were still alive. Why then was a pseudonym so popular and widely used at such a critical and momentous time in a nation’s history? Certainly there is evidence of the desire for disguise; no doubt prudential reasons played some part. However, there is also evidence that disguise was sought to prevent the arguments from being rejected out of hand because of pre-judgments about the author. Beyond this, however, there is a transformative aspect of the pseudonym that enabled the author to speak in a voice that was not only factually disassociated from the views of an identifiable individual but also that facilitated the entry of different views and perspectives altogether. This hypothesis is supported by Furtwangler who has carefully analysed the federalist papers and found that Publius has noticeably different points of view than those of ‘his’ purported authors. [v] In other words, rather than it being the case that the authors used the pseudonym to merely conceal their identities in order to express their own views, in Publius views and perspectives were expressed that were rhetorically tailored to the occasion. [vi] Furtwangler also points out that Publius and others made skillful use of the periodical press, which was supplanting traditional forms of “national communication and influence – pulpit, parliament and crown.” [vii] This served the vital purpose of reaching and informing a public on whose informed assent the legitimacy of the Constitution is founded.

Ironically, the modern state that was ushered in with the ratification of the American Constitution and in some measure supported by the persuasive logic of Publius, not only unified as one nation a group of diverse states and points of view, but also, arguably, eroded the conditions that enabled recourse to the views and perspectives that were enabled in Publius. This modern State not only claims legitimacy ‘in the people’ it also eschews all other claims to legitimacy (monarch, religion, independent factions, brute force) and begins to eclipse the identity that can stand apart from the interiority of the State or be a part of an externality that is extra-State, an identity that can have many names in a variety of contexts some of which are beyond to the purposes of the State. In short order, after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, measures were implemented to require that a name be given and registered according to a prescribed formula, that one is counted and polled in a regular census, and that one is legitimated only in one’s ‘real’ or ‘legal’ name are instituted. [viii] This began a process whereby the individual and identity becomes a singularity that is in some measure State directed and controlled. One could speak here of hegemony; however, I prefer to think about this in terms of the multi-faceted nature of the human and the preservation of a space for extra-State, extra-non-prescribed activity. A space that leaves open the possibility of the kinds of pseudonyms that can extricate one not only from the immediacy of one’s own worldliness but also from the pre-prescribed and legitimate requirements of the State.

It may be no small co-incidence that pseudonym use has proliferated in recent years and one can certainly align this increase with the advent of a new means of communication, the Internet. As we absorb the meaning of this resurgence and as legislators and courts begin to address the phenomena, we should think carefully about the various reasons for using a pseudonym and avoid too quickly characterizing pseudonym use merely as a means to conceal for prudential or illicit purposes, for history at least reveals that it is a much richer phenomena than this.

Furtwangler notes:

As a literate, civil, rational spokesman for modernity (though in the guise of an ancient sage), Publius cannot move some loyalties. He cannot counter or satisfy some human longings. It would be idle to wonder how a full-blown, spiritually satisfying constitution might have emerged in the 1780s, harmonized by an American Milton. The nature of the American experience was to begin anew, try an experiment, cast off crown and pulpit by calling upon modern newspaper prose to justify a new departure. The poetry of such a changed world would have to emerge, […] through experience, time, and feeling. But the first large step is bare law; devoid of the grace of imagery, softened only by the long deliberation and free discussion, and opening a dangerous discontinuity between old authorities and new. [ix]

It may be that the poetry that we were to wait for was right before our eyes in Publius and that we continue to provide for its emergence as we remain open to the richness of the pseudonym.

[i] Publius was the first name of a famous Roman consul, Valerius Publicola, who played a prominent role in the establishment of the new Roman state after the expulsion of the King and monarchial rule.
[ii] Attribution is not an uncontroversial issue. There is ongoing debate as to which of the three were responsible for the authorship of some papers; moreover, there are those who suggest that while a specific paper has been attributed to a particular author, in fact the paper was likely a collaborative effort or at least not the work of a single author. See, for example, Albert Furtwangler, The Authority of Publius (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1984) 118-129.
[iii] Some of the pseudonyms chosen, as in the case of Publius, draw upon an historical figure who played a significant role in founding a non-monarchial state. See, for example, constitution.org, “Anti-Federalist Papers”, < http://www.constitution.org/afp.htm>, which provides details concerning these pseudonyms.
[iv] McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 514 US 334 (1995), <http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/93-986.ZO.html>, 115 S.Ct. 1511 [McIntyre].
[v] Supra note 2 at 23-32.
[vi] Ibid. at 61-62. Also of significance is the choice of pseudonym, in many instances clearly referring back to persons who were prominent players in establishing the Roman republic.
[vii] Ibid. at 90-91.
[viii] Carl Watner, “The Compulsory Birth and Death Certificate in the United States” and “A History of the Census” in Carl Watner with Wendy McElroy eds., National Identification Systems (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004) 70 and 132 respectively.
[ix] Supra note 2 at 111.

| Comments (0) |

German Tor nodes seized -- Wo ist meine Zwiebel Router?

posted by:James Muir // 01:27 PM // September 11, 2006 // General

Back at the last project team meeting, I spoke about IP-geolocation technology and the related subject of how an end-user might conceal their IP address while surfing the Internet. A particular topic I mentioned was the experimental anonymizing network Tor (The onion router).

Tor is a practical, functioning network of about 800 volunteer servers (or nodes) which anyone can use to tunnel their Internet traffic through. The volunteer servers are contributed by various end-users and institutions in different countries throughout the world. Because of its practicality and use, there are a number of pertinent interdisciplinary questions (technological, legal, philosophical) that we can ask about Tor.

One question I suggested some time ago was the following: What are the potential legal consequences or risks of participating in the Tor network for Canadian citizens or institutions? The Tor web page has a Legal FAQ which gives some good background on this topic, but its not clear how the answers to those questions might change for Canadian citizens. Note that at least one Canadian university has decided against participating in the Tor network because of the legal risks they perceived.

Some recent reports have appeared that motivate the above question even more. Germany authorities have seized a number of Tor-nodes (more precisely, Tor exit-nodes) during an investigation related to child pornography; see the links below.

Other than having your computer temporarily seized, I wonder if there anything else that the owner of a volunteer Tor-node needs to worry about.


| Comments (0) |

The Fate of Friendship in the Networked Society

posted by:David Matheson // 11:59 PM // September 05, 2006 // ID TRAIL MIX


According to a recent study published in The American Sociological Review, friendship seems to be taking a hit in contemporary society. “Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than they did 20 years ago,” as Gary Younge from The Guardian (“Nation No-mates,” 23 June 2006) summarizes. “In 1985, the average American had three people in whom to confide matters that were important to them. In 2004, it dropped to two, and one in four had no close confidants at all.”

There is at least the whiff of a paradox here, when one considers that the decline in friendship in the last two decades has coincided with the rise of the networked society. The networked society is presumably about increased connections between its members. Close friendship is an instance of interpersonal connection par excellence. Why then should that connection shrink as others grow steadily? How is it that friendship of the close sort gets crowded out by the many other forms of interpersonal contact that saturate the networked society?

In order for an interpersonal connection to take on the form of close friendship -- to move beyond the realm of mere acquaintance, say -- it must of course be of a certain quality. I wonder whether, when it comes to the dramatic increase of interpersonal connections in the networked society, we might be dealing with a case of quality-undermining quantity.

The general phenomenon of quality-undermining quantity is pretty familiar. It makes its appearance in my corner of academe every year when those first-year essays that try to do too much, to cover too much terrain, come my way. The advice I’m constantly giving out -- aim for narrowness of scope and depth of discussion, rather that breadth of scope and superficiality of discussion -- is really just an expression of a worry about the ease with which quantity can undermine quality.

Or consider the fact that nowadays, many members of more fortunate societies have access to vast quantities of food. You don’t have to be an advocate of the Slow Food Movement, or even a particularly strong opponent of its Fast Food counterpart, to suspect that there’s something about the quantity of food available in these societies that tends to sit ill at ease with its quality. Gina Mallet nicely captures the point as she describes her move from early post-war Britain to the United States:

The moment I arrived in Los Angeles, I forgot all about England and fell in love with supermarkets. When I stepped inside my first supermarket, I thought I’d fallen into Aladdin’s cave. I had never seen so much food in my life – even at Harrods – or such beautifully burnished food: food that glowed like jewels, food temptingly presented, even the packaging itself looked looked edible, and it was all so cheap. I was taken to the Farmer’s Market where big was extra beautiful, jumbo fruits and vegetables piled high. The grapefruit, I swear, were the size of basketballs, and the oranges as large as melons. They shone with cleanliness. It was hard not to be bowled over. At a coffee shop I ate a mile-high sandwich stuffed with tomato and avocado, a fruit that was still called an alligator pear in England and considered exotic. It didn’t matter that the fruit didn’t taste of much. Coming from England, to me the bounty was all, a horn of plenty. It never occurred to me that within a few decades, the supermarket was going to emerge as the single greatest threat to the taste of food.
At first, supermarkets seemed benign. They were so cheap, and there were enough different chains to provide variety. But then, as the supermarkets began to telescope into fewer and fewer and larger chains, the food buyers started to think globally. They didn’t search out toothsome vegetables to tempt the customer. Instead, they drew up criteria for the fastest-moving food and ordered it grown. Whole varieties went to the wall, and the supermarket began offering only a fraction of the accumulation of fruits and vegetables once grown in even a modest Victorian kitchen garden, with its supersized onions and giant leeks. The supermarket vegetable is above all telegenic and tough – like a Hollywood movie star. It may be that corn only tastes good when rushed from the field straight to the grill or pot; but supermarket corn must be bred to survive for weeks. Iceberg lettuce is the model of industrial lettuce because it stays crunchy indefinitely in the fridge. (Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2004, pp. 233-4)

When it’s so easy to come by, when its quantity begins to overwhelm, there’s a tendency for it to remain at, or even degrade to lower levels on the quality scale. This is perhaps just as true when the “it” is interpersonal connection as when the “it” is the topics addressed in the first-year arts paper, produce, or what have you.

The technologically-driven interpersonal connections in the networked society are certainly easy to come by. Thanks to e-mail and the Internet, for example, I could reach out and connect with dozens and dozens of fellow members of the networked society this very afternoon, should I so desire. But the ease of the connections also tempts strongly in favor of their being both fleeting and insensitive. And it seems to me that close friendship is unlikely to emerge on the back of interpersonal connection when the connection has these features. Close friendship requires a less ephemeral, more sensitive connection.

Because it is so convenient, for example, the elevated temptation with e-mail (at least in my own experience) is regularly to fire off quick, frequently ill-considered, and even more frequently ill-formulated missives that leave the recipient with little reason to believe that they have been crafted with any sort of sensitivity -- care and respect for the recipient, for her convictions and concerns. It’s not hard for the recipient to get the sense that her connection with the sender is taken for granted by the sender. Moreover the ease with which interpersonal connections are made has had a large part to play in the lack of care with which privacy is treated in the networked society. Send me a sensitive email and I can all too effortlessly forward it along to someone else, against your (perhaps unstated but blatantly obvious nonetheless) wishes and very often without your knowledge. Be unfortunate enough to have certain bits of information about yourself on-line that you wouldn’t have there (were you to know about them or have any real say in their presence), and chances are that I can root them out with a few simple Google maneuvers. Off-line intrusions of that sort would seem pretty egregious. On-line, they’re getting so easy to effect that it’s becoming harder to see them as all that bad. The ease of my connections with you and others in the networked society lends itself naturally to a disregard for your privacy.

So maybe we’ve got the beginnings of a general explanation of the paradox mentioned above. The networked society is indeed about dramatic increases in interpersonal connections between its members. The high convenience of those connections, however, mediated by such technologies as e-mail and the Internet, tends to see to it that they fail to manifest certain qualities required for their transformation into instances of close friendship -- stability, sensitivity, and so on.

If this explanation is on the right track, what measures can be taken to preserve and encourage close friendship in contemporary society -- assuming we agree that it’s a value worth preserving and encouraging? A Neo-Luddite response would counsel us to cease, or at any rate severely limit, our reliance on the technologically mediated, easy means of connection. But that response seems to me to take an overly dim view of the convenience value of the technologically mediated connections. I like my email as much as the next person; I probably like spending time in supermarkets even more; and I don’t think the source of these preferences is wholly disreputable. Perhaps a better response is thus to return with renewed vigor to a consideration of the various ways in which we can help diminish the temptation to move from convenience to such unfriendly conditions as fleetingness and insensitivity, while still allowing ourselves the benefits of convenience. It seems to me that the efforts of members of the netiquette movement and of those involved in the practical evaluation of privacy policies (see here and here for a couple of premier examples) are role models of this alternative response. I, for one, hope that these efforts to humanize the network steadily increase -- for friendship’s sake if for nothing else.

| Comments (0) |

main display area bottom border

.:privacy:. | .:contact:.

This is a SSHRC funded project:
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada