Internet Mission Control: Safety or Privacy First?

Would you exchange your personal privacy for an Internet that’s not boring? Companies like Airtime - which launched to a mix of acclaimhype and skepticism last week - certainly hope so. They hope that you will allow certain aspects of your Internet experience to be shared and monitored in real-time to ensure your browsing safety. They hope to convince you to give up your right to anonymity for the right to have "fun, crazy things happen online." They hope to convince you that giving up information about your personal life by plugging into sites like Facebook will lead to a better online experience. 

The launch of the Airtime video chat service by Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning - perhaps two of the most famous names in the history of the Internet - was accompanied last week by the appearance of Hollywood celebrities and brash talk of how sites like Facebook no longer offer the types of exciting online experiences that early users of the Web once had access to. In other words, three billion Facebook likes is kinda dull. To bring sexy back to the Internet, Justin Timberlake, err, umm, Sean Parker, is essentially re-surfacing the wildly popular Chatroulette site (which burst into prominence about two years ago before drowning in over-exposure) and adding in a few parental controls for Facebook-using adults.

One of these parental controls to make the site safer for users is the ability to take screenshots of you while you're video chatting - just to make sure that the problems of user nudity that plagued Chatroulette don't bring down Airtime. Airtime also requires users to log in with their Facebook account. While users who don’t know each other wouldn’t have their respective identities divulged online, Airtime would have the identities in their back pocket in case any deviant behavior surfaced. Airtime also hinted that it had the ability to use an algorithmic analyzer to monitor activity on the site: if, for example, a user was skipped too often with the "next" button, it might be a red flag of indecent behavior while chatting. To put teeth into these parental controls, Airtime came up with a policy of "one strike and you’re out."

However, it wasn't the lack of anonymity online, the access to your Facebook information (everything you "like"), or the draconian "one strike and you're out" policy that caused the biggest hue and cry online - it was those screen captures, since they amounted to the most obvious assault on user privacy. As Kashmir Hill of Forbes asked, "Are you okay with Airtime secretly taking photos of you while you're video chatting?"

If the idea of Internet companies taking photos of you while you use the site doesn’t creep you out, you must be numb to the changing privacy policies at most "social" sites these days. Think about this for a second – what if the “cost” of going to the supermarket was a bunch of guys in the back room taking pictures of you as you move about the store and interact with various food products, while simultaneously having access to your interests and behaviors via a public profile? You might just start visiting another supermarket, where you could browse at your leisure without any privacy concerns.

We're much more amenable to giving up our privacy online than we are offline. In the offline world, we'd tell those guys to buzz off. In the online world, we dutifully check the boxes next to the required privacy statements and carry on. We want the excitement, and if that's the cost, so be it.

So should the mission of Internet sites be safety or privacy first? Should the Internet be about the online self-policing of sites or the "nanny state" solution of Internet Mission Control doing the policing for us? For all of its drawbacks, Chatroulette was adamant in the value of random experiences and anonymity – if you don’t like what you see, then just hit the “next” button. Airtime is adamant that users be connected to Facebook at all times and be willing to suffer a certain amount of intrusion into their personal lives for the sake of the greater good. While Airtime allows pseudonyms for two users who have never previously video-chatted, the identity of every user is always known to the Airtime team.

The issues faced by Airtime are the same, in many ways, of any social site on the Web. They are engaged in an internal struggle to determine how much personal information a user should be forced to give up in order to use a service. Is just an email address OK? Or should users be compelled to open up their entire public profiles? It is quite possible that Airtime will “re-humanize” the Internet by fostering random contacts around the world. It also quite possible, however, that Airtime will mean a further erosion of our personal privacy and another blow against anonymity on the Web.

image via Airtime

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