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Digital Rights, Privacy, Social Media and The Cloud: Cocktail for a Meltdown? 4 Ways Not to Drink the Kool-Aid

Digital Rights, Privacy, Social Media and The Cloud: Cocktail for a Meltdown? 4 Ways Not to Drink the Kool-Aid Andrew Edwards
In the halls of Congress today is circulating an anti-piracy bill which would, according to Wendy Davis at Online Media Daily, "make it difficult for online advertisers and credit card companies to continue doing business on the web".

The bill is aimed at preventing access to the Internet by companies that are "dedicated to infringement" activities--and of course Hollywood is for it, as Hollywood seems to have gotten behind anything and everything that in their perception keeps people from paying fifteen dollars to go see a movie. If the bill passes, card companies would have to stop working with those targeted companies. Even Google and Bing would have to stop showing those suspect companies in their search results.

But who gets to define which sites, and where does this ultimately play out? Are tweets no longer retweetable? Are pictures not to be forwarded? Are sites that link to content on other sites suddenly forced not to? And what kind of entrepreneur will build a service knowing the government could order it banished without adequate recourse?

Lesson: The fate of digital rights needs to play out in the business world, not take the form of a government edict that scares everyone out of using the Internet. The Protect IP Act (S.968) seems like a good place to take a stand (against).

Another case that made this writer's hair stand on end was where a bank had unwittingly sent sensitive PII to a certain gmail account (an amazing thing to begin with!); then sent an email to the gmail account that they must destroy the contents, but the gmail accountholder didn't reply and the bank got hold of Google and the gmail account got shut down. In the meantime, it turns out the accountholder had deleted the messages unopened but could not reply to the bank's later messages because the bank had forced Google to shut down the account to which they were sending correspondence. And to the bank, this person was probably considered unresponsive.

Lesson: If someone powerful enough sends you email you never wanted, and then they feel sorry about it, they can have your gmail account shut down (this is at least partly because Google is free and you have no Service Level Agreement with them).

We have seen the awesome power of Twitter to destroy careers. Witness Weiner and a host of other congress people who really seemed to believe they had control over what they wrote. But again, using a free service like Twitter, you are literally shouting to the heavens whatever you tweet. Twitter owns all your content. Twitter can shut you down or other Twitter users can make you into a meme so fast you will wish you never tweeted. This is because many people cannot distinguish the difference between the Internet, which we all pay for in various ways, and the services that glom onto the Internet to create private playgrounds with advertising. As owners of the playground, they can take your toys and send you home with sand in your eyes.

Lesson: Don't ever write anything on Twitter if you would not be perfectly comfortable with your tweet being read by everyone you know now and have ever known or might like to know at some point in the future--which is kind of a tall order when you think about it. Oh, and Twitter can deep-six you if they don't like you. Does this in any way resemble free speech? No, but that is not Twitter's fault. They never said they were a public service, did they?

Finally, these are Cloud-y days. "All will soon be in the cloud", we hear in a disembodied, kind of echoey, spooky voice. Why? Because the cloud enables developers to cobble together bits and pieces of functionality developed by others and out of these server-based functions, create a new offering. It's as if every developer were a hot-rodder with almost unlimited access to the Auto-Zone parts bin. They will be coming up with some wicked digital hot-rods--and also their share of clunkers. But what do you give up in the cloud? Visibility for one. For individuals, this is not such a big thing perhaps--individuals probably had little visibility into the nature of their digital assets (or lack) to start with.

But for companies, leaving so much computing in the virtual spaces not controlled by them, and in an environment where control is giving way to acceptance, the dangers are not terribly hard to imagine. For companies, losing visibility also means losing control. What happens in a shutdown of that cloud service? What happens when critical pieces of the cloud solutions you have bought into are somehow yanked or changed without your developers having known, or having known, were able to correct for?

Lesson: Play your best cards closer to the vest. Big companies have always wanted to hold on to their data, and now is not the time to farm it out quite so extensively as the Cloud champions would--for their own business-purposes--prefer. I am not here to say "don't use the cloud". I am saying that companies with service offerings using cloud solutions need to support claims of reliability with a redoubled effort--and be prepared to make it right when the cloud shed a little rain on the parade.

So are we headed for a digital meltdown? Not soon. But it does seem like our technology is well ahead of our ability to understand it and to bring it under harness. I would not be at all surprised to learn of a signal event--some massive failure or violation--that rises above the routine and becomes a meme in itself; and at that point such questions that continue to swirl around rights, privacy, the limits of social media and the supporting cloud itself, will become louder and potentially may dampen use of these enabling technologies in a meaningful way. I would like to see that not happen. And perhaps some better general understanding of the issues (witness my small attempt above) can keep people from steering too close to the digital guardrail.

Andrew Edwards is a managing partner at Technology Leaders (www.technologyleaders.com), a web analytics consulting and technology firm based in New York. He is a co-founder and former board member of the Web Analytics Association. A pioneer in the...

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