The Future of Privacy on the Generative Net

By Cathy Freeman

You look for top-rated sellers when you browse eBay, right? And before you buy on Amazon, don’t you take a look at all the ratings and reviews that might influence your decision to buy that gaudy curtain rod? Every time you Google something, you instinctively click on the top search results, because you know that is the precedent set by the majority of people just as curious as you. And we have come to value peer-edited Wikipedia just as much as our old-school leather bound Encyclopedia Britannica – maybe even more so (keep in mind the fact that everyone can say anything about anyone, including you).

Our Internet livelihoods depend on reputation. And reputation management in turn depends on organization, continuity and old-fashioned honesty – attributes some would say are in short supply on today’s generative web. The generative quality of the Internet allows for infinite editors and innovators and ultimately we sacrifice control for creativity’s sake.

This week I read an interesting take on this dilemma in Jonathan Zittrain’s book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. Zittrain warns, “The kinds of search systems that say which people are worth getting to know and which should be avoided, tailored to the users querying the system, present a set of due process problems far more complicated than a state-operated system, or, for that matter, any system operated by a single party.”

In other words, where structure is lacking there is a greater privacy risk. As Zittrain puts it, “The generative capacity to share data and to create mash-ups means that ratings and rankings can be far more emergent – and far more inscrutable.”

So generativity is here to stay. How can we preserve precious privacy and structure requisites while giving up the reins?

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