Opting Out

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Sometimes, situations and trends change so rapidly that it’s nearly impossible to get your brain wrapped around them, let alone keep it there… so you “go with your gut”. My personal gut has been in a slow churn of nausea about social networks, their integration into other “platforms”, the resulting effect on personal privacy, and the insidious motive of monetization driving it all.

Precisely when “opting out”, instead of “opting in”, became the normal requirement for all those extra services marketers would love to convince you that you need, is lost in the aether of the Web. It began when those fine-print check-boxes at the bottom of online registration forms appeared with the checks already applied — “I wish to receive a newsletter…”, “I wish to receive offers from associated merchant partners…” — with the statistically realistic expectation that enough people would miss seeing them, in the same way that most people (myself included!) skip reading Terms of Service and End-User License Agreements and just say, “OK, yadda yadda, just install the damned software already.”

But… Recent abuses creative applications of the “opt-out” technique, most notoriously perpetrated by Facebook, have renewed my sensitivity to the issue, and my diligence about it. And, in the past week or so, a couple of new developments in the arena of socnets vs privacy have raised my ire to the point of action. Ironically, in my own case there’s a tenuous connection.

United, we fail

Avatars United, that worthless excuse for a social network, which the Lab in its infinite wisdom purchased a few weeks ago, has been shown to be exploitable in two different ways (thanks to Snickers Snook for helping to make the Lab, and the rest of us, aware of iSoz Bioworm’s discovery!).

Just in the last day or two, Snickers (and Toxic Menges, via Twitter) opened my eyes again, to another door AU leaves open to exploitation: the exploitation of children. Alarmist? I started out thinking so, but it’s not just at AU — it’s in Second Life’s own Forums.

Somehow, someone at the Lab has decided — probably with the usual “fingers of the same hand don’t know what each other are doing, let alone right and left hand…” — that the only place the 13-to-18 crowd should not be permitted to mix with the 18+ is on the Grid itself. But hey… right there in the “Preamble” to the Terms of Service the Lab says:

Linden Lab may amend this Agreement at any time in its sole discretion, effective upon posting the amended Agreement at the domain or subdomains of http://secondlife.com where the prior version of this Agreement was posted, or by communicating these changes through any written contact method we have established with you.

They just haven’t gotten around — yet — to posting just how loosely they intend to interpret this clause in Section 2.2:

Linden Lab cannot absolutely control whether minors gain access to the Service other than the Teen Area,

where the Service has already been defined (Section 1.1) to include “the websites and services available from the domain and subdomains of http://secondlife.com”.

Draw your own conclusions about the potential long-term impact of this latest “policy change that isn’t one because we haven’t called it that..yet.” You can even debate it in the Comments here, if you like. As for me: I deleted my Avatars United account this morning.

Something else came up about AU a couple of days earlier… it seems that some people were seeing an increased amount of spam in their email at around the same time that they registered at AU (I suppose that doesn’t include the dozens of strangers sending blind “unite” requests for themselves and their groups). Snickers blogged about that, too; in the process, pointing out a couple of “opt-outs” that were checked “opt-in” by default. Shades of Facebook?

Her suspicion was that account-holders email addresses were somehow able to be “scraped” from the site by someone with the proper tools. Since her original post, someone named MSo Lambert has explained how that’s not possible, and both Yoz and Soft Linden have told her the same (see the comments to that blog). Peter Stindberg took this up, too, and made a very cogent point:

…while being spammed is a nuisance, the bigger threat lies in the unsolicited disclosure of a potential RL email address and thus disclosure of the RL identity.

In other words: Don’t use your everyday email address for your avatar!

I haven’t. Like many of my Second Life friends, Lalo Telling has a Gmail account of his very own, separate from my other emails (3, only one of which points to the identity in my wallet, and I only use that one for employment). And that leads us to…

Buzzkill

On February 9, Google launched a new service called Buzz — which, when I looked at it, appeared to be a miscegenation of Twitter, Plurk, and Facebook. Believe it or not, one of its initial selling points was that you didn’t have to set it up — it automatically appeared on your Gmail page, and everyone you contacted regularly was automatically following you. Cool, huh?

No.

Because until you dug at least two levels deep into the original settings for Buzz, your followers were public. More “opt-out” BS. So many people complained, so quickly and so loudly, that Google fell over themselves apologizing and tweaking the settings. Meanwhile, Canada’s Privacy Commissioner is investigating, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission. I recommend reading the complaint itself (PDF download), if you want the chronological details on the rapid “WTF?” response to Buzz, which spread through the Web at least as fast as Google’s promotional buzz. I also recommend this analysis of Buzz in the greater context of data-mining for economic gain (my soapbox for a couple of months now), by Christian Fuchs of the University of Salzburg. From his concluding paragraph:

Overall, the introduction of Google Buzz shows that there is an antagonism of privacy protection and economic surveillance interests on the contemporary Internet that is dominated by commercial interests.

Wilkommen nach dem 21. Jahrhundert, Herr Privat-Dozent.

I am already tied to the Empire of Google three ways: Gmail, Picasa, and this blog. Until the appearance of Buzz, however, my email address was protected from anyone with an axe to grind who might want to sink it into my head directly… but that’s not the most important consideration! The people with whom I exchange emails are other Second Life avatars who I have come to trust, and who have come to trust me. I refuse to betray that trust.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to kill the Buzz. It’s in the line of text above the copyright information at the bottom of the Gmail page — ironically, just above the link to Google’s Privacy Policy — “turn off buzz“. I did.

So should you, if you haven’t already… and maybe you should think about an exodus from Avatars United, too.

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4 responses to “Opting Out

  1. Thanks, Grace :)

    Yeah, the Empire has four of its hooks in me… but I went through everything I could find in my account settings, before posting this reply, to make sure that those 12 people following this blog via Friend Connect are still behind the wall.

    Mind you, that wall may be a thin as the rice paper panels in the home I built in OSGrid… but, to stretch a virtual word metaphor, it can't be cammed through yet.

  2. I'm with you on the general privacy issue, but I think the “exploiting children” angle is a stretch. AU content is certainly not porn, or even hard “R”. And there is no capability for private chat. So although I agree that they should do what it takes to get into compliance with the standard, no harm is being done at the moment.

  3. “No harm, no foul” only works until the first harm… and seems questionable as a business practice, to say nothing of governing a society. While the public content of AU may be PG, and there may not be private chat, there are private messages. As with security holes in software: the potential to exploit ultimately leads to an attempt. Remember Congressman Mark Foley?

    Otherwise, it's that hackneyed old conundrum called “matter of principle”… and we're talking here about the Lab getting into compliance with their own standard.

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