Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Where I Draw The Line

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 18, 2010

I was asked today,

"I'm a little concerned about privacy on the net (I even wonder if I should be). I find it hard to find the balance between what you can post online and what you can't (or shouldn't). You talk about embarrassment and even job opportunities. Where do you draw the line for yourself? Are you concerned with your digital identity or is it realy becoming a world where privacy doesn't exist and if so, is that a bad thing?"

I’ll start with the easy question: where I draw the line

I draw the line at providing a physical address. Yes, you can get my office address (because I work for the government) but you can’t find my home address anywhere online (I hope not, anyways).

This protects me from the random crazies. You have to actually know me to interact with me physically (or at least, know the access code to my office). So this limits the harm anyone can do to me to whatever they can say online.

And, all in all, there’s not much harm they can do. Not that people don’t try…
- they’ve spammed me
- they’ve hacked my site
- they’ve complained about me to my employers
- they’ve spread rumours about me
- they’ve called me names

What I’ve discovered is, pretty much nothing I say or don’t say is going to change this. If I put all of my photos online, or none of them online, people will still do these things. If I am perfectly polite online, or loud and opinionated, I’ll still get complaints, and I’ll still be called names.

On the other hand, none of this – except maybe the hacked website – actually hurts me. My employers are grown-ups – they know better than to react to an internet rumour or to jump on the bandwagon over some accusation of bad behavior. And I wouldn’t want to work for them otherwise. If I were in danger of being fired today over some indiscretion I committed in 1985, I’d be looking for another job right now.

But I guess there’s another place, too, where I draw the line: I draw the line at stupid.

You will never, for example, find a naked photo of me, online or offline. It just doesn’t exist.

Nor will you see photos or video of me breaking into office buildings, shooting up with drugs, engaging in random violence, etc. – all of which are behaviors I would quite rightly be chastised for. I don’t use “keep it offline” as a synonym for “it’s OK so long as nobody’s recording video.” I don’t hack people’s websites, I don’t pull a Mel Gibson, I don’t use the internet myself to stalk, intimidate or harass.

In other words – if you’re a reasonable responsible citizen – not an angel (I’m certainly not) but not a walking trainwreck – then there’s nothing that people can find out about you or say about you that is really harmful to any significant degree.

Your bosses or friends or relations who lose it over some minor transgression posted online were going to lose it over some minor transgression in real life anyways. You cannot eliminate the possibility of someone going off the rails and holding something against you for no good reason.

And the behavior that gets you into real trouble online would get you into real trouble in real life as well. It’s like the guy who posted a video of him driving 80 mph over the speed limit and then blaming the internet because he was charged and convicted of dangerous driving. It was the speed at which he drove his car, not the recording onto video, that cost him his driver’s license.

So, when I comment on things like ‘stalking in English class’ I start with the presumption that my readers are reasonable people. That they are well-behaved adults (or well-behaved minors) who are not a danger to society or to others. Who do not act like delinquents.

These people – including children – are not in any danger from the internet. It is only when they engage in behaviors that would endanger them in real life that they are in danger online. They are in danger only when they put themselves into positions of vulnerability – like walking down a dark alley at night, light getting into a stranger’s car, like inviting a brief acquaintance into your home – and only when they behave badly.

Now, finally, notice, that this does not mean nothing bad will happen to people who haven’t done any of this.

I’ve been harassed and attacked and bullied both online and offline. Sometimes you can be completely innocent, and have bad things happen to you.

I will say this, though. Though the technology makes it easier for people to, say, bully other people, it’s also a lot easier to deal with when it’s online as opposed to in person. Go ask any scared skinny little kid in the school gym locker room whether he’d rather be tormented in person or online, and he’ll say online. Every time.

And I’m sure he’d say that if teachers, parents and administrators were half as vigilant over what happens in locker rooms or playgrounds as they are over what happens online, a lot of very miserable lives would be a lot better. That’s not to say cyber-stalking and cyber-bullying are OK. It is to say, though, that people ought to get their priorities straight.

Children shouldn’t be told, “don’t give out your address to strangers online,” they should simply be told, “don’t give out your address to strangers.” School boards shouldn’t say “we will not tolerate cyber-bullying,” they should say “we will not tolerate bullying.”

So I guess that’s my third line: I focus on the threat, not the internet. Because that’s where the real danger lies.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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