May 30, 2024

A Start-Up Born at CITP

As is probably the case with many start-ups, Gloobe was born late at night. Early in 2013, on the night of a snowstorm in Princeton, I presented at the student-led Code at Night hackathon an idea for a web site that organized civic information onto online maps of local communities. With experience as a former […]

Principles #4 and #5 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies: Engage On-line and Off-line, and Prepare for the Future

As part of my continuing series, today I’ll discuss two more principles for fostering civic engagement and digital technologies. My earlier posts are: #1 Know Your Community #2 Keep it Simple #3 Leverage Entrepreneurial Intermediaries Principle #4: Utilize Creative Combinations of On-line and Off-line Communications Whether it’s a grass roots organization, national political campaign or […]

First Principles for Fostering Civic Engagement via Digital Technologies #2 and #3: Keep it Simple and Leverage Entrepreneurial Intermediaries

In my previous blog post, I set out the first of ten principles that local governments and communities should look to as they evaluate whether their community is using digital technology effectively to promote civic engagement and solve local problems. Today, I’m setting forth my second and third principles, “Simplicity – Bang for the Buck” […]

Web Tracking and User Privacy Workshop: Test Cases for Privacy on the Web

This guest post is from Nick Doty, of the W3C and UC Berkeley School of Information. As a companion post to my summary of the position papers submitted for last month’s W3C Do-Not-Track Workshop, hosted by CITP, Nick goes deeper into the substance and interaction during the workshop.

The level of interest and participation in last month’s Workshop on Web Tracking and User Privacy — about a hundred attendees spanning multiple countries, dozens of companies, a wide variety of backgrounds — confirms the broad interest in Do Not Track. The relatively straightforward technical approach with a catchy name has led to, in the US, proposed legislation at both the state and federal level and specific mention by the Federal Trade Commission (it was nice to have Ed Felten back from DC representing his new employer at the workshop), and comparatively rapid deployment of competing proposals by browser vendors. Still, one might be surprised that so many players are devoting such engineering resources to a relatively narrow goal: building technical means that allow users to avoid tracking across the Web for the purpose of compiling behavioral profiles for targeted advertising.

In fact, Do Not Track (in all its variations and competing proposals) is the latest test case for how new online technologies will address privacy issues. What mix of minimization techniques (where one might classify Microsoft’s Tracking Protection block lists) versus preference expression and use limitation (like a Do Not Track header) will best protect privacy and allow for innovation? Can parties agree on a machine-readable expression of privacy preferences (as has been heavily debated in P3P, GeoPriv and other standards work), and if so, how will terms be defined and compliance monitored and enforced? Many attendees were at the workshop not just to address this particular privacy problem — ubiquitous invisible tracking of Web requests to build behavioral profiles — but to grab a seat at the table where the future of how privacy is handled on the Web may be decided. The W3C, for its part, expects to start an Interest Group to monitor privacy on the Web and spin out specific work as new privacy issues inevitably arise, in addition to considering a Working Group to address this particular topic (more below). The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is exploring a Privacy Directorate to provide guidance on privacy considerations across specs.

At a higher level, this debate presents a test case for the process of building consensus and developing standards around technologies like tracking protection or Do Not Track that have inspired controversy. What body (or rather, combination of bodies) can legitimately define preference expressions that must operate at multiple levels in the Web stack, not to mention serve the diverse needs of individuals and entities across the globe? Can the same organization that defines the technical design also negotiate semantic agreement between very diverse groups on the meaning of “tracking”? Is this an appropriate role for technical standards bodies to assume? To what extent can technical groups work with policymakers to build solutions that can be enforced by self-regulatory or governmental players?

Discussion at the recent workshop confirmed many of these complexities: though the agenda was organized to roughly separate user experience, technical granularity, enforcement and standardization, overlap was common and inevitable. Proposals for an “ack” or response header brought up questions of whether the opportunity to disclaim following the preference would prevent legal enforcement; whether not having such a response would leave users confused about when they had opted back in; and how granular such header responses should be. In defining first vs. third party tracking, user expectations, current Web business models and even the same-origin security policy could point the group in different directions.

We did see some moments of consensus. There was general agreement that while user interface issues were key to privacy, trying to standardize those elements was probably counterproductive but providing guidance could help significantly. Regarding the scope of “tracking”, the group was roughly evenly divided on what they would most prefer: a broad definition (any logging), a narrow definition (online behavioral advertising profiling only) or something in between (where tracking is more than OBA but excludes things like analytics or fraud protection, as in the proposal from the Center for Democracy and Technology). But in a “hum” to see which proposals workshop attendees opposed (“non-starters”) no one objected to starting with a CDT-style middle ground — a rather shocking level of agreement to end two days chock full of debate.

For tech policy nerds, then, this intimate workshop about a couple of narrow technical proposals was heady stuff. And the points of agreement suggest that real interoperable progress on tracking protection — the kind that will help the average end user’s privacy — is on the way. For the W3C, this will certainly be a topic of discussion at the ongoing meeting in Bilbao, and we’re beginning detailed conversations about the scope and milestones for a Working Group to undertake technical standards work.

Thanks again to Princeton/CITP for hosting the event, and to Thomas and Lorrie for organizing it: bringing together this diverse group of people on short notice was a real challenge, and it paid off for all of us. If you’d like to see more primary materials: minutes from the workshop (including presentations and discussions) are available, as are the position papers and slides. And the W3C will post a workshop report with a more detailed summary very soon.

Antisocial networking

I just got my invitation to Google Wave. The prototype that’s now public doesn’t have all of the amazing features in the original video demos. At this point, it’s pretty much just a way of collecting IM-style conversations all in one place. But several of my friends are already there, and I’ve had a few conversations there already.

How am I supposed to know that there’s something new going on at Wave? Right now, I need to keep a tab open in my browser and check in, every once in a while, to see what’s up. Right now, my standard set of tabs includes my Gmail, calendar, RSS reader, New York Times homepage, Facebook page, and now Google Wave. Add in the occasional Twitter tab (or dedicated Twitter client, if I feel like running it) plus I’ll occasionally have an IM window open. All of these things are competing for my attention when I’m supposed to be getting real work done.

A common way that people try to solve this problem is by building bridges between these services. If you use Twitter and Facebook, there are several ways to arrange for your tweets to show up at Facebook (bewildering Facebook users with all the #hashtags and @references) and there are also a handful of ways for getting data out of Facebook. I’d been using FriendFeed as a central hub for all this, but it would sometimes stop working for days at a time. Now that they’ve been bought out by Facebook, maybe this will shake itself out.

The bigger problem is that these various vendors and technologies have different data models for visibility and for how metadata is represented. In Twitter, everything is default-public, follow-up comments are first-class objects in the system, and there’s effectively no metadata outside of the message, causing Twitter users to have adopted a variety of seemingly obscure conventions (e.g., “RT” to indicate a retweet of some other tweet). Contrast this with Facebook, where comments are a very different sort of message from the parent messages, where they have all sorts of security rules (that nobody really understands) about who can see what, and where there is actually structure to a message. If I link to a Youtube video, it gets magically embedded, versus the annoying URL shorteners that people have to use to shoehorn messages into Twitter.

Comments are a favorite area for people to complain. Twitter comments are often implicit with the @username tags. If I’m following a friend and a friend-of-my-friend comments on one of their tweets, I won’t necessary see it. In Facebook, I have a better shot at seeing those comments. But what if I wrote a blog post here at Freedom to Tinker, which Facebook nicely picks it up and makes it look just like I posted a note on my Facebook page. Now we’ll have comments on Freedom to Tinker and more comments inside Facebook which won’t intermingle. Of course, thanks to FriendFeed, a tweet will (probably) be automatically generated when I post this, causing some small amount of Twitter commenting traffic, and there may be comments within FriendFeed itself as well as Google Reader commentary (which is also different from Google Reader’s “share with note” commentary).

Given these disparate data models, there’s no easy way to unify Twitter and Facebook, much less the commenting disaspora, even assuming you could sort out the security concerns and you could work around Facebook’s tendency to want to restrict the flow of data out of its system. This is all the more frustrating because RSS completely solved the initial problem of distributing new blog posts in the blog universe. I used to keep a bunch of tabs open to various blog-like things that I followed, but that quickly proved unwieldy, whereas an RSS aggregator (Google Reader, for me) solved the problem nicely. Could there ever be a social network/microblogging aggregator?

There are no lack of standards-in-the-wings that would like to do this. (See, for example, OpenMicroBlogging, or our own work on BirdFeeder.) Something like Google Wave could subsume every one of these platforms, although I fear that integrating so many different data models would inevitably result in a deeply clunky UI.

In the end, I think the federation ideas behind Google Wave and BirdFeeder, and good old RSS blog feeds, will ultimately win out, with interoperability between the big vendors, just like they interoperate with email. Getting there, however, isn’t going to happen easily.