Shakespeare quartos from the British Library

Privacy, transparency and reputation systems

Much on the ether, earlier this year and more recently, about both privacy and transparency (Ross Mayfield has a good overview here.)

Back in 1999, Scott McNeally famously said at a press conference, 'You already have zero privacy. Get over it' (localglobe, 26 April). Saul Klein added:

After spending much of the 90s in the trenches of the internet privacy debate, only to see its importance retreat, it's great to see that serial innovators like Google, Amazon and the founders of Skype are once again pushing the boundaries of what we understand as private and public space as they advance respectively into email, search and telephony. ... If, like Scott McNealy, you've already come to the conclusion that none of this remotely bothers you, or you think we're better off leaving these debates to the conspiracy theorists and policymakers then you probably stopped reading some time ago. But if even a little bit of you wonders whether we should actually be taking this seriously; or if you've ever used email, Googled, made an online purchase or considered making a free internet phone call, then there could not be a better time to join the debate.
A month later, Don Park posted this:
I used to think that privacy concerns in America were strong enough to thwart ideas like single-sign-in and Gmail from being realized. My study of the social networking phenomenon has gradually changed my opinion to a point where I now think the power of privacy concerns can be dispelled with the right strategy. Obviously, this can't be done by just anyone and serious commitments must be made in terms of time and resources, but I now believe it can be done. I have come to realize that concerns are temporal in nature and require constant reinforcements to maintain them. A primary source of that reinforcement is social pressures. If people around you are concerned, you become concerned. If they seem unconcerned, (the) level of your concern diminishes. People who do not conform to the group's level of concerns are pushed to the fringe and eventually cast out, either by the group or by their own choice.

And then there was Chris Allen's thoughtful suggestion that it is useful to distinguish between four kinds of privacy:

When people speak about privacy, they may actually be talking about very different forms of privacy: defensive privacy, human-rights privacy, personal privacy and contextual privacy.

As Ross Mayfield emphasises, contextual privacy is particularly significant for wikis: 'Negotiating context shifts over time proves to be the most difficult, socially and even legally, to let resources accrete value. Setting the mission and vision of a space requires a great deal of forward looking imagination while balancing the basic need to define a social context for sharing.'

Now comes news that the Riemann Hypothesis could be about to be cracked:

Mathematicians could be on the verge of solving two separate million dollar problems. If they are right - still a big if - and somebody really has cracked the so-called Riemann hypothesis, financial disaster might follow. Suddenly all cryptic codes could be breakable. No internet transaction would be safe. The Guardian

Proponents of transparency may see the tide turning in their favour. (See the Wikipedia article on The Transparent Society.) Smart Mobs carried an interesting item this month, Transparency Visions, which culminated with this quotation from the Panarchy site:

In an information civilization, the preponderance of data about anything and everything means that only the data that is most relevant will ever even be looked for in the first place. Most of the information about you as one of potentially nine billion human beings on the planet is simply not valuable in any meaningful sense. Furthermore, as information about you that is valuable is gathered, you will be able to see who is doing the gathering, i.e. you can reciprocally gather your own information about the gatherers. More to the point, information service providers will be available not only to gather information about you for them, but also to gather information about them for you. ... While this may seem heretical to those of us raised in an age of copyright protection, secrecy, and privacy, for the younger generation the benefits of transparency are already glaringly evident. After a local school shooting, parents and children were asked how they felt about installing metal detectors at the school. Nearly unanimously, parents reacted with shock and fear, using phrases like "privacy rights" and "violation of our civil rights." Even more surprisingly, the children who actually attend the school nearly unanimously came out in favor of the metal detectors. For them, the solution to security came not from individual rights but from stronger community rights via increased transparency. This is a lesson that the international system has yet to internalize, but in the future the final solution to international relations' "security dilemma" will be enacted through precisely these new norms, internalized and enacted by those self-same kids.

Of course, transparent communities would have to find ways of protecting the marginalised. The social pressures of Don Park's posting can quickly come to work against, for example, the least reputable members of a community:

Sometimes we need to listen to people who have bad reputations. Often they are the critics, the people with a talent for seeing flaws and problems none of us wants to face. Communities can't thrive if they never answer to the least reputable of their members. So, for now I'm waiting for a new community system, one whose wisdom will destroy reputations and replace them with something more meaningful. (Annalee Newitz, writing at AlterNet)
There's a lot at stake here, more even than issues of privacy.