Google Social Graph API, privacy and the public record

I’m digesting some of the reactions to Google’s recently announced Social Graph API. ReadWriteWeb ask whether this is a creeping privacy violation, and danah boyd has a thoughtful post raising concerns about whether the privileged tech elite have any right to experiment in this way with the online lives of those who are lack status, knowledge of these obscure technologies, and who may be amongst the more vulnerable users of the social Web.

While I tend to agree with Tim O’Reilly that privacy by obscurity is dead, I’m not of the “privacy is dead, get over it” school of thought. Tim argues,

The counter-argument is that all this data is available anyway, and that by making it more visible, we raise people’s awareness and ultimately their behavior. I’m in the latter camp. It’s a lot like the evolutionary value of pain. Search creates feedback loops that allow us to learn from and modify our behavior. A false sense of security helps bad actors more than tools that make information more visible.

There’s a danger here of technologists seeming to blame those we’re causing pain for. As danah says, “Think about whistle blowers, women or queer folk in repressive societies, journalists, etc.”. Not everyone knows their DTD from their TCP, or understand anything of how search engines, HTML or hyperlinks work. And many folk have more urgent things to focus on than learning such obscurities, let alone understanding the practical privacy, safety and reputation-related implications of their technology-mediated deeds.

Web technologists have responsibilities to the users of the Web, and while media education and literacy are important, those who are shaping and re-shaping the Web ought to be spending serious time on a daily basis struggling to come up with better ways of allowing humans to act and interact online without other parties snooping. The end of privacy by obscurity should not mean the death of privacy.

Privacy is not dead, and we will not get over it.

But it does need to be understood in the context of the public record. The reason I am enthusiastic about the Google work is that it shines a big bright light on the things people are currently putting into the public record. And it does so in a way that should allow people to build better online environments for those who do want their public actions visible, while providing immediate – and sometimes painful – feedback to those who have over-exposed themselves in the Web, and wish to backpedal.

I hope Google can put a user support mechanism on this. I know from our experience in the FOAF community, even with small scale and obscure aggregators, people will find themselves and demand to be “taken down”. While any particular aggregator can remove or hide such data, unless the data is tracked back to its source, it’ll crop up elsewhere in the Web.

I think the argument that FOAF and XFN are particularly special here is a big mistake. Web technologies used correctly (posh – “plain old semantic html” in microformats-speak) already facilitate such techniques. And Google is far from the only search engine in existence. Short of obfuscating all text inside images, personal data from these sites is readily harvestable.

ReadWriteWeb comment:

None the less, apparently the absence of XFN/FOAF data in your social network is no assurance that it won’t be pulled into the new Google API, either. The Google API page says “we currently index the public Web for XHTML Friends Network (XFN), Friend of a Friend (FOAF) markup and other publicly declared connections.” In other words, it’s not opt-in by even publishers – they aren’t required to make their information available in marked-up code.

The Web itself is built from marked-up code, and this is a thing of huge benefit to humanity. Both microformats and the Semantic Web community share the perspective that the Web’s core technologies (HTML, XHTML, XML, URIs) are properly consumed both by machines and by humans, and that any efforts to create documents that are usable only by (certain fortunate) humans is anti-social and discriminatory.

The Web Accessibility movement have worked incredibly hard over many years to encourage Web designers to create well marked up pages, where the meaning of the content is as mechanically evident as possible. The more evident the meaning of a document, the easier it is to repurpose it or present it through alternate means. This goal of device-independent, well marked up Web content is one that unites the accessibility, Mobile Web, Web 2.0, microformat and Semantic Web efforts. Perhaps the most obvious case is for blind and partially sighted users, but good markup can also benefit those with the inability to use a mouse or keyboard. Beyond accessibility, many millions of Web users (many poor, and in poor countries) will have access to the Web only via mobile phones. My former employer W3C has just published a draft document, “Experiences Shared by People with Disabilities and by People Using Mobile Devices”. Last month in Bangalore, W3C held a Workshop on the Mobile Web in Developing Countries (see executive summary).

I read both Tim’s post, and danah’s post, and I agree with large parts of what they’re both saying. But not quite with either of them, so all I can think to do is spell out some of my perhaps previously unarticulated assumptions.

  • There is no huge difference in principle between “normal” HTML Web pages and XFN or FOAF. Textual markup is what the Web is built from.
  • FOAF and XFN take some of the guesswork out of interpreting markup. But other technologies (javascript, perl, XSLT/GRDDL) can also transform vague markup into more machine-friendly markup. FOAF/XFN simply make this process easier and less heuristic, less error prone.
  • Google was not the first search engine, it is not the only search engine, and it will not be the last search engine. To obsess on Google’s behaviour here is to mistake Google for the Web.
  • Deeds that are on the public record in the Web may come to light months or years later; Google’s opening up of the (already public, but fragmented) Usenet historical record is a good example here.
  • Arguing against good markup practice on the Web (accessible, device independent markup) is something that may hurt underprivileged users (with disabilities, or limited access via mobile, high bandwidth costs etc).
  • Good markup allows content to be automatically summarised and re-presented to suit a variety of means of interaction and navigation (eg. voice browsers, screen readers, small screens, non-mouse navigation etc).
  • Good markup also makes it possible for search engines, crawlers and aggregators to offer richer services.

The difference between Google crawling FOAF/XFN from LiveJournal, versus extracting similar information via custom scripts from MySpace, is interesting and important solely to geeks. Mainstream users have no idea of such distinctions. When LiveJournal originally launched their FOAF files in 2004, the rule they followed was a pretty sensible one: if the information was there in the HTML pages, they’d also expose it in FOAF.

We need to be careful of taking a ruthless “you can’t make an omelete without breaking eggs” line here. Whatever we do, people will suffer. If the Web is made inaccessible, with information hidden inside image files or otherwise obfuscated, we exclude a huge constituency of users. If we shine a light on the public record, as Google have done, we’ll embarass, expose and even potentially risk harm to the people described by these interlinked documents. And if we stick our head in the sand and pretend that these folk aren’t exposed, I predict this will come back to bite us in the butt in a few months or years, since all that data is out there, being crawled, indexed and analysed by parties other than Google. Parties with less to lose, and more to gain.

So what to do? I think several activities need to happen in parallel:

  • Best practice codes for those who expose, and those who aggregate, social Web data
  • Improved media literacy education for those who are unwittingly exposing too much of themselves online
  • Technology development around decentralised, non-public record communication and community tools (eg. via Jabber/XMPP)

Any search engine at all, today, is capable of supporting the following bit of mischief:

Take some starting point a collection of user profiles on a public site. Extract all the usernames. Find the ones that appear in the Web less than say 10,000 times, and on other sites. Assume these are unique userIDs and crawl the pages they appear in, do some heuristic name matching, … and you’ll have a pile of smushed identities, perhaps linking professional and dating sites, or drunken college photos to respectable-new-life. No FOAF needed.

The answer I think isn’t to beat up on the aggregators, it’s to improve the Web experience such that people can have real privacy when they need it, rather than the misleading illusion of privacy. This isn’t going to be easy, but I don’t see a credible alternative.

Begin again

facebook grabThere was an old man named Michael Finnegan
He went fishing with a pinnegan
Caught a fish and dropped it in again
Poor old Michael Finnegan
Begin again.

Let me clear something up. Danny mentions a discussion with Tim O’Reilly about SemWeb themes.

Much as I generally agree with Danny, I’m reaching for a ten-foot bargepole on this one point:

While Facebook may have achieved pretty major adoption for their approach, it’s only very marginally useful because of their overly simplistic treatment of relationships.

Facebook, despite the trivia, the endless wars between the ninja zombies and the pirate vampires; despite being centralised, despite [insert grumble] is massively useful. Proof of that pudding: it is massively used. “Marginal” doesn’t come into it. The real question is: what happens next?

Imagine 35 million people. Imagine them marching thru your front room. Jumping off a table at the same time. Sending you an email. Or turning the tap off when they brush their teeth. 35 million is a fair-sized nation. Taking that 35 million figure I’ve heard waved around, and placing it in the ever scientific Wikipedia listing … that puts the land of Facebook somewhere between Kenya and Algeria in the population charts. Perhaps the figures are exagerrated. Perhaps a few million have wandered off, or forgotten their passwords. Doubtless some only use it every month or few.

Even a million is a lot of use; and a lot of usefulness.

Don’t let anything I ever say here in this blog be taken as claiming such sites and services are only marginally useful. To be used is to be useful; and that’s something SemWeb people should keep in the forefront of their minds. And usually they do, I think, although the community tends towards the forward-looking.

But let’s be backwards-looking for a minute. My concern with these sites is not that they’re marginally useful, but that they could be even more useful. Slight difference of emphasis. SixDegrees.com was great, back in 2000 when we started FOAF. But it was a walled garden. It had cool graph traversal stuff that evocatively showed your connection path to anyone else in the network. Their network. Then followed Friendster, which got slow as it proved useful to too many people. Ditto Orkut, which everyone signed up to, then wandered off from when it proved there was rather little to do there except add people. MySpace and Facebook cracked that one, … but guess what, there’ll be more.

I got a signup to Yahoo’s Mash yesterday. Anyone wanna be my friend? It has fun stuff (“Mecca Ibrahim smacked The Mash Pet (your Mash pet)!”), … wiki-like profile editing, extension modules … and I’d hope given that this is 2007, eventually some form of API. People won’t live in Facebook-land forever. Nor in Mash, however fun it is. I still lean towards Jabber/XMPP as the long-term infrastructure for this sort of system, but that’s for another time. The appeal of SixDegrees, of Friendster, of Orkut … wasn’t ever the technology. It was the people. I was there ‘cos others were there. Nothing more. And I don’t see this changing, no matter how much the underlying technology evolves. And people move around, drift along to the next shiny thing, … go wherever their friends are. Which is our only real problem here.

Begin again.

I’ve been messing with RDF a bit. I made a sample SPARQL query that asks (exported RDF from) a few networks about my IM addresses; here are the results from Redland/Rasqal JSON.