Online Identity Series: Who Owns You On the Internet?



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Online, we all love to share things, and social media has created great platforms for us to do so.   When I first questioned friends who joined Facebook back in my university years, they always responded, “It’s just so easy to share pictures.”  And sharing is fun, but things can sometimes go awry with what you share because the Internet is a kind of public domain.  It’s a good idea to know your rights regarding your own visage on the internet–or you could end up as the poster child of the next online scam. More after the jump.

Some food for thought

We all know that there are some serious problems with putting your name, picture and phone number on the Internet.  And while most people scoff at the idea of ‘privacy’ in today’s day and age, privacy does still matter particularly because people can abuse you often without you even knowing it.  I’m tempted to call it ‘face scamming.’

Take for one, the dating website that stole 250,000 public Facebook profiles.  They created an entire hot-or-not dating website using public information from Facebook.  Then they told everyone how they did it, and said it was a kind of revolution in online dating.

Even better, a super mom blogger recently had her family photo uploaded and printed all over the Czech Republic for a marketing advertisement.   Her family took a wonderful photo she decided to share with Facebook friends, and it ended up on a marketing advertisement.  The quote below it reads “We’ll prepare and deliver your requests within  two business days.”  Cute.

Yes, a lot of naysayers have always said that the you take that risk when you upload photos, information, etc. but it doesn’t really work that way, not legally, anyways.   it might be the case that it’s a little too late to put the brakes on most people taking your information, but the problem is not about whether they will or not (they will, inevitably), the problem is why don’t people care that they are ending up on foreign billboards?

Fair Use Copyright Law

Let’s be honest…until image searches improve, or we all get a lot more friends in in police offices, we probably won’t be able to stop everyone from using our pictures or downloading them as they see fit.  But the key for most of us lies in what is called ‘fair use’ copyright law.  You see, most of us could care less if someone downloads our picture and puts it on a poster (heck, some people might even be flattered) but fair use copyright law states that people and organizations can’t use our picture for profit without explicit consent.  And here’s where the kicker comes in…a lot of websites troll the internet for your information…to use it for profitable purposes.  Fair use states that people can use creative work or published information for things like commentary, research, teaching purposes, etc.  But we make people pay for things that bring companies profit.  (Go capitalism.)  Point being, most of us are giving away our information for nothing and screwing ourselves out of a lot of money in the process.

A Grey Matter

The reason this matters is because for the nightmare examples above and for anyone who has ever had their public information stolen or abused, which isn’t that uncommon.  The internet is a wild west of legal matters–and there are companies and groups that fall into that ‘grey’ category–they aren’t completely legitimate with how they find your information, but they pulled that information from public profiles, so no big deal, right?

This has always been a thorny question for legislators, and for individuals concerned about privacy on the Internet.  Law makers are starting to catch up, but they’re hesitant to legislate online activity because it’s already complicated.

The United States government, for example, has recently asked outside agencies to look into the possibility of certified online identities, and has formed its own coalition call NSTIC.   They claim that “An estimated 11.7 million Americans were victims of identity theft of some kind including online identity theft over a recent two-year period.”  They envision an Identity Ecosystem that’s completely voluntary and will ensure better standards of prevention against online identity theft.  I think it’s a good start.

Other organizations like the Mozilla foundation are interested in the idea of  “Open ID” that is controlled by your browser.  The hope is that a browser-controlled ID will make it harder for scammers to get your information while making the internet a friendlier, less sign-up-intense place to be.

However, the problem isn’t about online logins, which is unfortunate.  The problem with online identity today lies with social media, fair use policy, and who owns you on the Internet.  Because if you look closely at the terms of use of most websites…we don’t own that information on social media.  The social media outlets do.  Online dating websites usually retain all the rights to photos you post on your profiles…like, forever.  Think you deleted your Facebook profile for the last time, like, really the last time?  Facebook still has a lot of that information, and that information shows up in image searches.  Which is not a big deal…unless some day you don’t want to be found on the Internet.  And some people don’t.

In other words, in the Information Age, we don’t own our own information.  Everyone else does.  So when do we get to own our personal information again?

Logging In

If all that is really required to make the internet safer against scammers and online fraud is the ability to provide a clear photo of yourself as well your address and date of birth, anyone who can perform a few Google searches can find out that information.  It doesn’t matter how we log in to websites, or how we protect the ways we plug in…because it’s already too late to moderate social search since it already exists.  People are already scamming the system, and they’re doing it better than the people who moderate and police the Internet.

Action Versus Reaction

A reactive measure to create login ids, open IDs, etc. isn’t going to stop people from putting your picture on a Russian mail-order brides website.  Only fair use and identity theft laws can do that.  Why aren’t we working harder to create laws and policies that discourage online identity theft if it’s on the rise as NSTIC says?  What is it going to take to authenticate ourselves on the internet in the future…and who gets to own that data?

Instead of worrying about how people are logging in, we sh0uld be worrying about who owns the rights to us, online, on various web portals and platforms.  People have given up a lot of rights to their images and identities on the Net, and for what?  So they can play Farmville? (No offense, Farmville-lovers.)  There’s nothing wrong with giving organizations transactional rights to information about us…but how much is too much, even in the world of social media?

Brennan Sarich is a practitioner of public relations and digital strategy in Toronto, Ontario.  He is a freelancer with several years experience and specializes in online content, event management and social media.  Visit his blog or follow him on twitter @bsarich.

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