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 AcmeCorp.com’s public website from your home computer public or private?