Posted January 23, 2008 5:57 pm by with 9 comments

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In the United States, we have some pretty easy-to-remember guidelines on what constitutes “public” and “private.” Areas like your home and your car are considered private. With a few notable exceptions, other areas are public. These legal definitions apply to entities like the police and the press—anything that happens (or is found) in public is “fair game,” but to intrude on your privacy, the police have to have at least a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity (or your permission).

The Internet is a bit trickier, especially for those of us so used to clear distinctions in this area. We all know that anything to publish online from a website to a bulletin board to a blog is to literally make it public—as public as if you’d put it on a billboard. Most of us understand that it’s virtually impossible to be virtually anonymous, even if the closest thing to your name you leave is the not-so-very-personally-identifiable IP address that your ISP assigned you.

But short of actually hitting ‘submit’ after typing text, what constitutes ‘public’ online? If you visit a company’s website, are you implicitly giving your consent for them to monitor your activity on their site? Record your IP address? Count your visit on a counter? Is visiting their website analogous to visiting their lobby where your image could be captured on security cameras?

Of course, your face is certainly a lot more personally identifiable than the information that your computer automatically gives out when requesting a file from another server. For most of us using the Internet in the privacy of our homes, our IP address has been assigned by our ISP and can only identify a computer (or a router) in a certain location. It can’t tell you whether I’m visiting the site, or if it’s my husband, or our two-year-old, or the cat, or a stranger off the street.

The EU, still examining the GoogleClick deal this week, is currently debating whether IP addresses are ‘personal.’ And even if they are, does that automatically mean that they are private? As I said before, your face is pretty personal (even if you have “one of those faces”). Should we shroud our countenances when we leave our houses?

And if you’ve got this all figured out—that anything we do in our home should be private (short of illegal activity, right?)—let me further complicate matters by reminding you that anything you do in your house that’s visible from the street is ‘public’ (thank you, paparazzi). So, is visiting’s public website from your home computer public or private?

  • You hit the answer right on the head with the lobby comparison Jordan. Just like a lobby, you don’t know what’s really on a web-site (or in the lobby) until you step onto the grounds. Once you click through to the company’s site, or step through a door into their lobby you’re on their property.

    So, recording an IP address is fair game, but following that IP address once it leaves company property is dead wrong. Now, we still have privacy, in that the company can’t broadcast to the world that we’ve visited their site. Doing so would be a violation of our privacy.

  • This is a concept that really toubles me sometimes. I actaually got to thinking when i read a post on this site about how Google can somehow ‘read’ you email and tailor the text ads to synch with the contents of your email. That scared me, how very vulnerable we are on the internet!

  • Yeah I guess I can see (thanks to your comparison) that capturing an IP address is fair once you’ve entered their website.

    I do think that they should make it very clear what they capture and what they do with it and then you can decide whether you want to visit them again or not.

    I’m not sure I agree with it but I guess it’s fair – after all it’s their website and their information.

  • Actually one has ‘most privacy’ (not 100%) only in one’s house. Your car, while it’s your private property, doesn’t have much of a privacy as soon as you get on the road. Police can and do record it’s speed and can charge you for speeding, illegal turns etc. and in some jurisdiction they have cameras installed. In many shopping stores they have cameras installed with big warning signs that this store has cameras installed for ‘Your security’ :-). I think the same or similar rules should apply to a website; they may collect IP but may not be permitted to track back the individual, only legal authorities should be able to track just like they do in the case stores, banks etc.

  • Jordan McCollum

    As I said, illegal activity in plain sight isn’t private. The street is public. You being in your car, your property in your car (that’s not in plain sight) etc. are private. Just because a car is your private property doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to break the law in it. Same with your house. I did mention this in the article.

  • Jordan,

    I like how you brought up the comparison of public space in regards to paparazzi. The 1st Amendment break down of that is interesting as it is based upon a reasonable expectation of privacy. Famous, recognizable can’t reasonably expect the same level of privacy as Joe Schmoe down the street. I’m wondering if there will be some similar application of internet privacy where different standards apply to different users, or even different websites.

    So shall we see…

  • interesting question but i’m not sure there’s anyway of claiming that the internet is private. the entire concept is based completely on public-facing material. everything is about accessing public information.

    there are certainly ways of circumventing this–such as “hidden” or “granular access privileges” to public profiles (i’m thinking facebook and myspace here…heck, even linkedin).

    another way of protecting yourself on the net is to use the onion router. funny sounding name but it’s an amazing service for “erasing” your original IP address, essentially protecting who you really are and where you come from.

    also, there are programs that will reset your mac-address, which is another way of tracking browsing history. (this is in addition to turning cookies off…i think the public has generally forgotten that cookies exist…and it was sooo vogue to talk about them during the early ’00s).

    lol. gl and great question!

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