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Re: privacy definitions -- was: WebID questions

From: Henry Story <henry.story@bblfish.net>
Date: Sun, 30 Sep 2012 13:05:19 +0200
Cc: public-philoweb@w3.org, Adeline Gasnier <adeliga@hotmail.com>
Message-Id: <A795D1F0-A717-42F4-AB15-45D12E04906E@bblfish.net>
To: Jason White <jason@jasonjgw.net>

On 30 Sep 2012, at 12:09, Jason White <jason@jasonjgw.net> wrote:

> Henry Story <henry.story@bblfish.net> wrote:
>> Looking at those two, can we agree that we agree that anonymity should be the default?
>> I believe as you do that when I go to a web site the default should be that I not be 
>> identified, and not be tracked. I can choose later to be tracked or identified for
>> that site for a given amount of time or until I change my mind, but the default should
>> be anonymity.
> I agree this is a desirable default. The counter-argument will come, however,
> from corporations that profit from tracking users and enabling advertisers to
> take advantage of the information so acquired. This is, apparently, a
> lucrative pursuit. It raises the economic question of whether, were anonymity
> the default, content and application providers who presently fund their
> end-user offerings through advertising would in some cases have to resort to
> micro-payments, subscriptions or other means of charging users directly.
> There are surely users who would willingly forego anonymity, allowing
> information about themselves obtained via tracking to be sold to advertisers,
> in exchange for "free" content and services on the Web. Of course, the system
> only works if sufficiently many users are willing to make the trade-off; and
> those who operate businesses in this manner are going to argue, whether
> convincingly or not, that making the trade-off should be the default position,
> with anonymity left as an option that an individual user can invoke as desired.
> For purposes of this post I am not taking sides, but instead attempting to set
> out the issues and arguments fairly.

Point well taken.

I am here trying to set up a principle where Ben Laurie and I can agree.
I could live with having to set up cookies per web site myself. I also see that 
a lot of web sites would not have been able to get going if this had been the default
for most users, who were confronted for the first time with just understanding 
and using the web. Either way, it should be possible for the system to work 
in anonymous mode, and this mode has advantages. It should be visible when one 
is untracked. That is important information.

Indeed this is what I have been trying to get browsers to implement. And this has 
been a lot more difficult than it should be. I think because a large number
of issues are getting confused. Fear of identification without anonymity may be
why such issues are not getting dealt with - in addition to the business reasons
you invoke. 

Transparency though has to be key to this.

It could be that this transparency becomes a legal requirement. On the WebID mailing 
list recently in a question to  Ian Walden, Professor of Information 
and Communication Law in London on that topic:


>> Anonymity is important for many reasons. Among which is that it helps create a trusted
>> public sphere. It increases my trust in the information I read if I know that the publisher 
>> publishes that information that can be read by anonymous readers. Knowing that the publisher 
>> cannot tell who is reading what he is publishing is a very strong guarantee that he
>> is not adapting his message to different groups. Oddly enough anonymity has an important role 
>> therefore in public discussion.
> Indeed it does. Further, as no doubt you acknowledge, there are policy
> concerns that extend far beyond anonymity: what is often needed and wanted is
> control, within certain limits, over the use and dissemination of information
> that individual users disclose in the course of their online activities.
> Issues of privacy can often usefully be posed as questions of control,
> exercisable in particular by an individual with respect to the content of her
> or his own disclosures. Beyond that generality, the problems become complex
> and I wouldn't pretend to have general principles to propose.

yes. Anonymity is important, and so is identity. The concepts are on a spectrum.
Indeed identity is fundamental in one half of the transaction: the web site itself
is identified in our argument above. Even if only with a .onion url.

( Well, one could create systems where documents are identified clearly without 
 the reliance on particular web sites. And there are very good reasons for such 
systems too. They would be a lot more efficient and failure resistant as Van
Jacobson explains in his very interesting tech talk


If you are interested in philosophy of language there is an important
argument for names here )

What I am trying to see is if I can get Ben to agree that both anonymity
and identity are important and good - if done correctly. He is clearly
coming from the side of wikileaks - where anonymity of the sender is key 
but identity of the receiver - wikileaks is very important.

> So far as philosophy is concerned, these are issues of applied ethics. There
> may indeed already be a pertinent literature - I haven't checked, as this is
> well outside my areas of current research interest (but it's certainly
> interesting enough for a good mailing list discussion and I would gladly read
> a paper on the topic).

There are also issues in the philosophy of language relting to identity. Works such
as Gareth Evens "The Variety of Reference" are never far away here.



Social Web Architect

Received on Sunday, 30 September 2012 11:05:54 UTC

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