Sunday, November 13, 2005

The personal boundaries of censorship

Something Paul Waide said during my Tinfinger presentation last Friday at Melbourne Long Tail Camp has got me thinking. I was discussing how Tinfinger was a human search engine, but he asked: what if someone doesn't want their name to be searchable? Paul said he had "clients" who paid good money to have their name removed from Web sites and search engines, one of whom had reduced the number of mentions of their name on the Internet down to one. He joked that it could be a good revenue opportunity, although I shot back cheerfully that we weren't in the business of blackmail.

This is a sensitive issue. Of course any search engine worth their salt will respect the robots.txt system and there are other content control tricks for Google, but what about if someone wants content from a third party site not to be indexed? There are some heavyweights who are active in this area, such as the Scientologists and the Chinese, people whom it would be folly to mess with.

My gut reaction is to say no to censorship. If a person is mentioned somewhere on the Internet, I want it to be indexable on Tinfinger. If the site on which the name is mentioned is not censored, why should Tinfinger be censored? Of course, the reason the search engines are attacked in this manner is because they are an easy target, a weak point in the network.

Paul's point did remind me that some of what Tinfinger seeks to do - which is, in essence, to be the Internet's first living biography site - will seem creepy to some people. We will have to make sure to communicate that unlike the White Pages, we will not be hosting personal information - or at least nothing that you wouldn't feel comfortable seeing in a local newspaper about yourself. Some people have more sensitive personal boundaries than others, of course, so this is something we'll have to keep in focus. It's a constant battle we'll have to fight. However, I hope the positive effect the site will have will outweigh any misunderstandings along the way.


Blogger Rob said...

I don't understand the argument some people make for this. If something is public record on the Net, it's public record. Fullstop. You can't be a little bit pregnant, and you can't be a little bit on the Web. It's all or nothing. I'd actually like to hear a legal argument for making publicly available material private in certain circumstances, because it seems a nonsense.

11:35 pm, November 13, 2005  
Blogger Paul Montgomery said...

Rob, you have to understand where Paul is coming from... those "clients" he's talking about are most likely Chinese (I'm only speculating, I don't know and didn't ask him, but go look at his Web site and take a guess). It's a cultural divide. The sad fact is that Google has been shut down several times in China and has kowtowed (pun intended) to Chinese demands. What would I do if someone wants to put a list of Falun Gong potentates, or Taiwanese pro-independence political agitators on Tinfinger? Or more pertinently, a list of high-level Chinese functionaries listed under "corrupt apparatchiks"? My site would likely get banned in China. Personally I wouldn't back down, but Google went the other way.

11:46 pm, November 13, 2005  
Anonymous Pete Cashmore said...

Yeah, I had this thought too. There are already a few "human search engines" (I know that's not exactly what you're doing here, but it's broadly similar) that have been criticized for gathering together data on individuals (many of them offer to remove your data on request). Even though the data is publicly available, the simple act of bringing it together makes it far more accessible, and to some degree validates it. For instance, if I wanted to steal your identity, I'd have to find a photo of you, find some personal data about you, who you bank with etc. That would take a lot of work, so I'd have to be pretty determined. But if someone could gather up a lot of that data in one place, it would make the job of a would-be identity thief much easier. Or what if I had a grudge against you and wanted revenge? Putting a lot of your data in one place would make things easier there, too. Sure, I could try Googling you - but who's to say that that if I find the phone number of a Paul Montgomery, it's the same Paul Montgomery that wrote this blog? Separating the various PMs into categories gives me more confidence that the data I've collected is accurate.

I'm not saying these are valid arguments, but they are arguments that people could level against sites like Tinfinger. But I think a much bigger risk is if you end up indexing information which is factually wrong or libelous. Obviously this is the fault of whoever printed the information in the first place, but if users are unable to stop the information at the source, they will no doubt blame Tinfinger and ask that it be removed.

Clearly, gathering data on people is a much riskier business than collecting other types of data, simply because people care about what others think. This can also be seen in the arguments that occur over Wikipedia biographies. And then you get into that really tough question: what is truth? If most people think something about you, does that make it true? That seems to be what happens at Wikipedia, and it seems like there's no way to avoid this kind of debate. In fact, just putting something on a site like Wikipedia or Tinfinger appears to be a validation of that data, nevermind how many disclaimers you put up.

Still, I like the concept overall - good luck!

3:06 am, November 14, 2005  

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