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.

Shadows on the Web

This is a quick note, inspired by the recent burst of posts passing through Planet RDF about RDF, WebArch and a second “shadow” Web. Actually it’s not about that thread at all, except to note that Ian Davis asks just the right kind of questions when thinking about the WebArch claim that the Web ships with a hardcoded, timeless and built-in ontology, carving up the Universe between “information resources” and “non-information resources”. Various Talis folk are heading towards Bristol this week, so I expect we’ll pick up this theme offline again shortly! (Various other Talis folk – I’m happy to be counted as Talis person, even if they choose the worst picture of me for their blog :).

Anyhow, I made my peace with the TAG’s http-range-14 resolution long ago, and prefer the status quo to a situation where “/”-terminated namespaces are treated as risky and broken (as was the case pre-2005). But RDFa brings the “#” WebArch mess back to the forefront, since RDF and HTML can be blended within the same environment. Perhaps – reluctantly – we do need to revisit this perma-thread one last time. But not today! All I wanted to write about right now is the “shadow” metaphor. It crops up in Ian’s posts, and he cites Rob McCool’s writings. Since I’m unequiped with an IEEE login, I’m unsure where the metaphor originated. Ian’s usage is in terms of RDF creating a redundant and secondary structure that ordinary Web users don’t engage with, ie. a “shadow of the real thing”. I’m not going to pursue that point here, except to say I have sympathies, but am not too worried. GRDDL, RDFa etc help.

Instead, I’m going to suggest that we recycle the metaphor, since (when turned on its head) it gives an interesting metaphorical account of what the SW is all about. Like all 1-line metaphorical explanations of complex systems, the real value comes in picking it apart, and seeing where it doesn’t quote hold:

‘Web documents are the shadows cast on the Web by things in the world.

What do I mean here? Perhaps this is just pretentious, I’m not sure :) Let’s go back to the beginnings of the SW effort to picture this. In 1994 TimBL gave a Plenary talk at the first International WWW Conference. Amongst other things, he announced the creation of W3C, and described the task ahead of us in the Semantic Web community. This was two years before we had PICS, and three years before the first RDF drafts. People were all excited about Mosaic, to help date this. But even then, the description was clear, and well illustrated in a series of cartoon diagrams, eg:

TimBL 1994 Web semantics diagram

I’ve always liked these diagrams, and the words that went with them.

So much so that when I had the luxury of my own EU project to play with, they got reworked for us by Liz Turner: we made postcards and tshirts, which Libby delighted in sending to countless semwebbers to say “thanks!”. Here’s the postcard version:

SWAD-Europe postcard

The basic idea is just that Web documents are not intrinsically interesting things; what’s interesting, generally, is what they’re about. Web users don’t generally care much about sequences of unicode characters or bytes; we care about what they mean in our real lives. The objects they’re about, the agreements they describe, the real-world relationships and claims they capture. There is a Web of relationships in the world, describable in countless ways by countless people, and the information we put into the Web is just a pale shadow of that.

The Web according to TimBL, back in ’94:

To a computer, then, the web is a flat, boring world devoid of meaning. This is a pity, as in fact documents on the web describe real objects and imaginary concepts, and give particular relationships between them. For example, a document might describe a person. The title document to a house describes a house and also the ownership relation with a person. [...]

On this thinking, Web documents are the secondary thing; the shadow. What matters is the world and it’s mapping into digital documents, rather than the digital stuff alone. The shadow metaphor breaks down a little, if you think of the light source as something like the Sun, ie. with each real-world entity shadowed by a single (authoritative?) document in the Web. Life’s not like that, and the Web’s not like that either. Objects and relationships in the real world show up in numerous ways on the Web; or sometimes (thankfully) not at all. If Web documents can be thought of as shadows, they’re shadows cast in many lights, many colours, and by multiple independent light sources. Some indistinct, soft and flattering; occasionally frustratingly vague. Others bright, harshly precise and rigorously scientific (and correspondingly expensive and experty to use). But the core story is that it’s the same shared world that we’re seeing in all these different lights, and that the Web and the world are both richer because life is illustrated from multiple perspectives, and because the results can be visible to all.

The Semantic Web is, on this story, not a shadow of the real Web, but a story about how the Web is a shadow of the world. The Semantic Web is, in fact, much more like a 1970s disco than a shadow…