Legislative Tensions in Participation and Privacy

posted 12 May 2011, 02:23 by Michael Boniface   [ updated 12 May 2011, 06:22 ]

Two-thirds of the world’s Internet population now visit an online community or blogging site and the sector now accounts for almost 10% of all Internet time. A quarter of a million users sign up to social networking sites every day worldwide and a third of those who have a profile on a social network update it daily. Participation and privacy are critical success factors that underpin healthy and vibrant online communities. It is essential that Future Internet researchers understand the complexities of participation and privacy in the design of systems to ensure that technologies are socially, ethically and legally acceptable.

The lastest SESERV report explores perspectives on participation and privacy within online communities by applying different analytical techniques to a case study from e-Government.

Collaborative network organisations (CNO): Design from the users’ perspective

Tussles: Design the playing field and not the outcome

Risk management: Design for outcome considering uncertainty

In addition to discussing participation and privacy sheding light on the debate, each technique was assessed against the ability to 1) construct issues and research challenges, 2) facilitate communication and debate, 3) assessment of technology advances, 4) improve engineering design through insights from other domains, 5) design legally compliant Future Internet systems and 6) improve project design and decision making. The overarching conclusion was that examining the issues from different perspectives highlights different concerns that need to be considered within system requirements and architectural design. CNO highlighted the need for mechanisms to facilitate federation between different collaboration structures, tussles highlighted issues such as the economic conflicts in outsourcing processing of personal data to clouds and risk management identified the security mechanisms necessary for data protection compliance.

From a participation and privacy perspective the results showed that the goal to increase participation in political discourse through the use of popular social networking sites has many attractions. Likewise, the goal to comply with data protection legislation is also equally valid and as well as necessary. The CNO analysis shows that a critical success factor (i.e. participation) for social networking providers is to maximise activity, which is achieved irrespective of the purpose of the communication between individuals. The risk assessment highlights that for legal compliance providers must take responsibilities (in respect to purpose) and individuals need to take certain actions (e.g. consent). So here lies the contradiction. Privacy compliance, often declared as a way to increase trust, and hence participation, often impedes activity and actually acts as an inhibiter to participation in many situations. In reality, individuals use social networking sites because their perception of risk is considered low enough for participation. It is the perception of and appetite for risk that that dictate levels of participation, irrespective of associated regulation. Data protection can help but usually where low-levels of trust exist.

This leads to an interesting challenge for European service providers and research projects. How to balance strike the balance between participation and privacy considering desires to monitor and mine data without violating a citizen’s right to privacy? Architectures that facilitate communication between individuals regardless of purpose have been important innovators in the Internet. It is a principle that has contributed to the explosion of Internet use (the end-point principle) and it is improbable that the successful paradigms of the last decade, social networking and clouds, would not have prospered if they had considered compliance to the European regulatory environment. Each new paradigm has focused on promoting the benefits of solutions and opted for weak privacy positions. The try it and observe approach has allowed for a privacy balance to evolve over time as participants explored their preferences rather than having them analysed in advance by security experts. Social networking has been in fact a large experiment in people’s appetite for privacy but how Europe strikes the balance between participation and privacy remains a matter of serious debate.

The full report is available here or view on scribd

Michael Boniface,
12 May 2011, 06:21