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We need Social Norms for our Online Lives

We need Social Norms for our Online Lives

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by Vint Cerf

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Vinton G. "Vint" Cerf is an American computer scientist recognized as one of "the fathers of the Internet." His contributions have been repeatedly acknowledged and lauded with honorary degrees and awards that include the National Medal of Technology, the Turing Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and membership in the National Academy of Engineering. Vint Cerf was a key figure in the funding and formation of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) from the start. He served as chairman of their board from 2000-2007.

First, many of the things that seem harmful to us when using the Internet or "living in the Internet environment" are the result of thoughtless behavior on our part. Nothing malicious intended. The social networking frameworks allow us to do things easily that we could not have done before. Often this is a matter of economics. We can post a photo on the net that can be seen by millions – we could not have sent photos in the mail to millions. We didn't know their addresses and the cost would have been prohibitive. But when we do this, others can tag the photos. When we take pictures of some subject, we may also pick up photos of people we may not have intended to photograph. The person tagging the image may have little context except to recognize a face and tag it. A third person may discover that the tagged person was in a place or with a person that is troublesome. "Who was that woman I saw you with on the Internet?"

We do these things without thinking much about consequences. In some very real sense, we have yet to evolve social norms for our online lives. We send email and others forward them. We have online chats and they are recorded and shared. None of this has anything to do with the controversy over tracking for advertising purposes or improvement of search results. It has to do with deliberate actions that have unintended consequences. When Google began its "Street View" effort, it soon became apparent that people were sensitive about being photographed on the street if their images were going to be made more public than exposure to a small set of viewers local to time and place. Google ended up developing the ability to detect faces and license plates and automatically blurring them in the images

Another example: court records are typically considered public records and citizens can obtain transcripts of the proceedings. In the past, this took some work because you typically had to appear at the courthouse and pay for a copy of the record to be printed. If these documents were made available online, access would be easier, they might even be searchable, and virtually anyone could access them. But these records often contain personal information such as addresses, phone numbers, possibly financial information and, often, personally embarrassing details of lives gone awry. The ease of access amounts to a major change in accessibility and a qualitative change in the meaning of "public record".

For anyone concerned about the right to privacy, these changes, brought about in part because of the dramatically different economics of the online versus paper world, drive the need to re-think what policies should be adopted for access to public records. Once again, societal principles may collide with notions of human rights, driving the need for debate and reasoned discussion. Governments and laws are generally intended for the protection of society and its citizens. It is no wonder that these matters have become part of national and even international debate as our global society struggles with balance between protection of citizens from harm, protection of privacy, enforcement of law, discovery and interdiction of persons intent on doing harm, possibly across international or at least jurisdictional boundaries. The questions below capture some of the flavor of this conundrum. We need to add, however, questions about social norms that, while not dictated by law, have the effect of lubricating human interactions in a global society that exists in both offline and online worlds.

Sebastian Haselbeck
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