World Wide Web Conference: Tim Berners-Lee and Beyond

 
 
Guest post by Massimo Ragnedda

Tim Berners-Lee’s keynote was one of the most important presentations at the World Wide Web Conference hosted in Lyon, France between from the 16th to 20th April 2012, though there was much more to the World Wide Web Conference than this important speech.

Among those attending were thousands of scholars, developers and students participating in workshops, presenting papers and networking. To give you an idea of the amount of participation, there was: 755 full papers submitted, of those around 12% were accepted and a total of 107 papers were presented and discussed with the audience.

I was personally involved (thanks to Dejan Seo, who contributed to travel expenses), in two workshops: “Making sense of Micropost”  and “Privacy and Security in Online Social Media”. The first talk consisted of our host, Danica, presenting a paper on small talk in the digital era , where we were given the opportunity to debate the importance of phatic communication in the digital age. The second day, I participated in the workshop on “Privacy and Security in Online Social Media”, in which many scholars and researchers from all over the world discussed and presented their research about privacy in the age of social networks. Based on what I experienced in the presentation, there is a need to investigate, study and characterise privacy and security of online social media from various perspectives (cultural, computational, psychological and sociological).

While the extensive use of Social Networking Sites (SNSs) offers new opportunities for interaction, it also raises new privacy concerns, creating many potential negative consequences for users. Thanks to the SNSs millions of individuals create online profiles and share personal information within their networks of friends, and increasingly with unknown numbers of strangers, corporations and the government.

It’s true that massive stores of personal data about ordinary people are held and are now a vital part of research used for public services and private business purposes. SNSs have become integrated into modern-day social interactions and are widely used as a primary medium for communication and networking, in particular among adolescents. Two of the questions prominent during the workshop were: “Are we concerned enough about our data?” and, perhaps more importantly, “Does our data really belong to us”?


After an introduction by Prof. Ponnurangam Kumaraguru and Prof. Virgilio Almeida, the invited speaker Prof. Anupam Joshi (CS Department, UMBC), spoke on “Privacy, Security, and Trust in Social Media: Some Issues and Challenges”. Prof. Joshi addressed some fundamental ideas and concepts in the evolution of privacy. The challenge now is to understand if we are losing our privacy or if we see privacy in a different way. Prof. Joshi went on to rhetorically ask if old laws that protect privacy are adequate in the age of digital communication and SNSs. My observations lead me to conclude that the old laws are not adequate, the world has changed, with an increase in usage of the Internet and an exponential increase in the use of online social media where the issues surrounding privacy dramatically increase. Websites such as Facebook, YouTube, Orkut, Twitter and Flickr have changed the way in which the Internet is being used and also the way in which privacy is seen and perceived by users. Real world scalable systems need to be built to detect security and privacy issues within online social media, users also need to better understand the risks involved in giving out so much private data.

There is also the problem of translation in the privacy settings, privacy policies, and terms of service pages in each language available on the popular global social networks as the paper of Blase Ur, Manya Sleeper, Lorrie Faith Cranor, rightly pointed out at. The concerns about privacy go beyond the paper, implying complex repercussions as the different users, in particular the youngest group (the so called “born digital”), for whom the privacy phenomenon is not perceived as social capital.

As a sociologist I am interested in the social implication of the privacy attitudes of users and how online communication tools transform society and our social relations. A consequence of this workshop and the followed discussion was my own question and something I’m working on: “why are we handing out data about ourselves for free?”.

Right now the government and the private sector potentially have both a larger quantity of and better quality of  detailed information about citizens than the KGB or Stasi used to have on their own citizens during their regimes. Why we were so concerned back then and not worried about what is happening in our society right now? Is it because now we are giving this information voluntarily and before it was stolen? Are we so sure now that important information could not be stolen by the government or private companies for their own benefit?  We also have to ask is there are any connection between the rise of the reality show in which the private life is offered to the public and the SNSs which, in particular on Facebook, we make public our personal data?

It is true that the problem is also a lack of individual responsibility and knowledge so that users put themselves at risk by putting too much private information online and by not making use of privacy mechanisms, but it also a problem of unclear law protecting personal data and privacy policy not always  being clear.

So finally, we should ask, once again, if are we losing the right to privacy, especially in arenas used to express personal freedoms and exercise individualism? These are some of questions about which I am currently thinking and which, maybe, also you  should begin to think about.

Massimo Ragnedda works at the University of Sassari
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