Plutonian Striptease X: Constant

astounding stories of super science: spawn of the stars
Plutonian Striptease is a series of interviews with experts, owners, users, fans and haters of social media, to map the different views on this topic, outside the existing discussions surrounding privacy.

Constant is a non-profit association, an interdisciplinary arts-lab based and active in Brussels since 1997. Constant works in-between media and art and is interested in the culture and ethics of the World Wide Web. The artistic practice of Constant is inspired by the way that technological infrastructures, data-exchange and software determine our daily life. Free software, copyright alternatives and (cyber)feminism are important threads running through the activities of Constant. Constant organizes workshops, print-parties, walks and ‘Verbindingen/Jonctions’-meetings on a regular basis for a public that’s into experiments, discussions and all kinds of exchanges.

Michel Cleempoel, graduated at the national superior art school of la Cambre – Brussels. Author of numerous digital art works and exhibitions, in collaboration with Nicolas Malevé.

Nicolas Malevé, a multimedia artist since 1998, has been an active member of the association Constant. As such, he has taken part in organizing various activities to do with alternatives to copyrights, such as Copy.cult & The Original Si(g)n, held in 2000. He has been developing multimedia projects and web applications for cultural organisations. His research work is currently focused on information structures, metadata and the semantic web and the means to visually represent them.

Social networks are often in the news, why do you think this is?
Essentially because of their scale. Facebook reports having more than 500 million active users.[1] This, of course, inspires all kinds of commercial dreams. Social networks barely brought something new to the web. For personal pages, Friendster predates largely Facebook and the other social networks. And the functionalities they offer barely innovate. It is their momentum though since a large portion of the online population happily subscribes and uses these services. In our view, social networks are an internet in miniature, what the bourgeois garden is to nature: a domestic version, with fences, controllable, reassuring, narrow-minded. They have their own version of email, chat, links, search, page but everything in redux. As they are powered by social pressure, they are an endless source of anecdotes fueling the media.

It is important to remark that we hear a lot about proprietary social networks and too rarely about free social networks in the mainstream media. They exist though and are used by governments, businesses or academic institutions: ie, elgg[2], a social network releasing its code under the GPL powers various important platforms like Oxfam, Federal Canadian Government, Johns Hopkins University or Université Lille 1.

In what way do they differ from older forms of communication on the Internet?
Internet offers the possibility of a more decentralized media ecology. The Peer-to-Peer exchange networks are a wonderful example of this. Proprietary social media (although sometimes built with free software never release their source code) are based on a centralized architecture. A company owns the server where the users connect and therefore can monitor their behaviour easily. It is barely new though. Centralized and decentralized technologies have always been co-present on the network.Think about the intial MSN Classic, the first attempt of Microsoft to capture its users in a mini-internet, not so far from Facebook.

MSN was originally conceived as a dial-up online content provider like America Online, supplying proprietary content through an artificial folder-like interface integrated into Windows 95’s Windows Explorer file management program. Categories on MSN appeared like folders in the file system Then officially known as ‘The Microsoft Network,’ the service launched along with Windows 95 on August 24, 1995. MSN was included with Windows 95 installations and promoted through Windows and other Microsoft software released at the time. Product support and discussion was offered through the MSN service, as well as information such as news and weather, basic e-mail capabilities, chat rooms, and message boards similar to newsgroups (from Wikipedia).[3]

At the time, users much prefered the possibilities of the internet. It seems today that an important part of them embrace a return to MSN-like technologies.

Who is ultimately responsible for what happens to the data you upload to social networks?
You have to distinguish two things: the data you upload consciously and the traces that you leave. The first ones are covered by the way you handle copyright, the second ones are the property of the platform.

For the uploaded data, the Flickr terms of use (now Yahoo’s) used to state “What’s yours is yours”. But most of the time, this is nuanced by a series of conditions that change the meaning of the statement: for instance, you grant the company (and its affiliates) the right to use your data for advertising its services. For the traces, your privacy rights are the only way to regain control, but it is extremely difficult since you are barely aware of what kind of data is collected. The matter is further complicated by the fact that, when signing up, you grant the company the right to host your data in other countries, therefore possibly under different legislations (usually more favorable to them).

Now if we consider the aspect of responsibility for what is being said or shown, the platform denies all responsibility.

Do you read Terms of Use or EULA’s and keep up to date about changes applied to them?
As we read them, we don’t subscribe to proprietary social networks. We are huge fans of the Goodiff project, a service for automated tracking of semantic changes in web service policies created by Alexandre Dulaunoy and Michael Noll. They clearly prove the point that these terms of services are constantly re-written, one tiny modification after the other.[4]

Do you think you’ve got a realistic idea about the quantity of information that is out there about you?
As we don’t subscribe, we have no idea.

How do you value your private information now ? Do you think anything can happen that will make you value it differently in the future?
We usually lack scenarios to imagine what can be done with electronic information. Apparently innocent data can be used to produce critical knowledge. A good example is France Telecom offering to the French trade-unions active in its company to use a shared intranet. On the intranet’s homepage, you can see the number of connections: 5000 connections per month for 120 000 workers. An easy way to monitor in real-time the power of the trade-union in the company. Data which is initially gathered to monitor the technical status of the platform ends up being a statement about the penetration (or lack thereof) of the unions in the company.[5]

Additionally, if you leave information in a system, this information can be correlated with other sources of information to produce new knowledge about you. Even if this information is apparently innocent at first. The problem with proprietary social networks is that they tend to centralize so much about your internet life that they can correlate a lot of information about who you connect to, what are your interests, at what time you do what or when. This information is available to third-parties (advertisers) and constitutes valuable consumer profiles to them. Or they can be a means to check other information: an insurance company comparing profile information with a health insurance request, a tax officer comparing your spending habits in your declaration form and your social network profile, etc. In this respect, private data is the oil of the new century. And this only covers what we can expect under relatively democratic regimes. The web 2.0 companies do not resist very much the pressures of the Chinese government to give access to user data. And we do not need to go so far anyways, you only need a slightly authoritarian state to see that information easily finds it’s way to the police.[6]

How do you feel about trading your personal information for online services?
We chose our alliances. If we need online services, we prefer to pay a small amount of money to trustworthy organisations committed to free software and serious about privacy rather than use the free online services. We prefer supporting Domaine Public or all2all in Belgium rather than using a free GMail account.

However alternatives are not always easy or available. When there is no trustworthy alternative, we try to use these online services as cautiously and as less as possible.

What do you think the information gathered is used for?
Commercial use through customer behaviour analysis, mainly. We are not only watching the banner, the banner is also gathering information from what one does, what one writes and to whom, from status to age and sex preferences. In this respect, it is quite similar to Google adds following you from page to page, site to site.

Have you ever been in a situation where sharing information online made you uncomfortable? If so, can you describe the situation?
At the moment, we know that ex-students made a club about Michel in Facebook. The club is closed to the public and it is a student’s joke. In itself it is not a big deal, but the fact that it is closed doesn’t allow to respond and nevertheless the information about its existence has leaked out of the social network. Used in a more delicate situation, this combination of closed group and leaks can be explosive. This illustrates the point that the use of privacy-preserving technologies for one person is pointless if others happily enjoy disseminating information about him/her in environments he/she can’t access.

By collecting information on other users, tagging them on pictures, sending them email invitations, social networks users are doing the profiling for the platform they contribute to.

What is the worst case scenario, and what impact would that have on an individual?
The worst case scenario is usually described in terms of the ‘personal little secret’ being revealed. Husband cheating on wife, homosexuality revealed, etc. Most of these stories one can find in the newspapers have an amibiguous moral tone: on the one hand the platform is blamed for the breach of privacy, on the other hand, more subtly, the victims are stygmatized as they had indeed something to hide. Names are published and photos (often coming from the social network) are printed. The consequences can be serious, they include cases of suicide. But as painful as it is, we think this part of the problem is relatively easy to understand.

There are, in our opinion, other damaging effects of the social networks that can prove virulent on the longer term. One is the epistemic violence used against a core element constituting the social: friendship. Everyone knows a Facebook friend is not a friend as in “real life”, that a “friend” on the platform has a different meaning, it means two nodes connected in a graph. But the more it goes, this cognitive failure that doesn’t capture the complexity of social binding and intimacies gets internalized by the users. They don’t dare to exclude or refuse requests, they feel obligations, and more importantly they internalize the idea that friendship is an instrument to quantify another fraudulous concept: reputation. On a daily basis, they perform a successful cognitive failure as they know the terms are wrong but they nevertheless act according to their logic.

The other damaging effect is the increasing loss of collective organisational skills related to the digital infrastructure. Every time a group chooses a proprietary social network to get organized, it looses the occasion of finding ways to create its digital habitat or its communication platform, its working environment. When Indymedia users go to MySpace, independant video-makers to YouTube, writers and philosophers to Facebook, we all loose a beautiful opportunity to reinvent our relationship to music, film or literature, critical thinking and meditation.

Nowadays, most of the “reading” of what is written online is done by machines. Does this impact your idea of what is anonymity and privacy?
First about privacy.
Privacy in itself is a complex notion. For instance, to make one’s coming out is a very crucial step for a homosexual. It is to take the decision of moving an affirmation about one’s sexuality from the private to the public sphere. Taking care of privacy in this respect doesn’t mean to burry one’s sexual preference in the closet, but to give the freedom to keep it private or to take a public stand. Additionally the division between the private sphere and the public one is extremely political. A partner molested in a couple may need that we don’t consider the home private and intervene. Privacy depends on contexts and strategies. In the digital world, it is not privacy in itself the problem but why some humans put machines to work so hard on virtual relationships. Why such an urge to diminish the importance of privacy? Why now? Why do we have now, immediately, to leave it in the name of progress? A better world, etc.[7]. We agree that privacy must not be reified and is a dynamic concept. But the reason why we must accept immediately its devaluation is rather unclear. And is decided unilateraly by the tech-industry moguls. This is what triggers our curiousity and suspicion. Privacy is an obstacle in the deployment of the social graph. The epistemic holdup on sociality cannot happen if relationships can escape the graph. But don’t think the same industry is not interested in privacy. It is very aware that it can be monetized and sold back through the privacy business. As they want to impose their own version of networked sociality, they want to impose their own version of privacy. What we are suposed to do is to let go of privacy and buy it back through privacy enabling/preserving technologies or services.

Now on the machines.
A recently published study[8] on the people who monitor the images of surveillance cameras reveals that 15% of the time is spent in pure voyeurism, and a good part of the remaining time is spent to track people and movements on the base of racial and social bias. One could think a machine could be more neutral, but the machines are programmed by humans, so the problem is simply displaced. An interesting example has showed up recently[9]. Yasir Afifi, who lives in Silicon Valley, discovered a GPS tracking device on his car. Uncertain wether this was a tracking device or a bomb, he posts the pictures on the internet and, reassured it was a GPS device, he intends to sell it. Soon after, the doorbell rings with FBI agents asking to have the device back. When they interrogate him, they show him a printout of a blogpost made by a friend of him. The blogpost indeed speaks about bombs in a mall, but is a general comment about security and terrorism. Typically the FBI software that monitors popular sites on the internet must have a predilection for certain keywords (bombs, mall) and their presence is likely to trigger a chain of events. But what is interesting is that not only the person who wrote the post is under surveillance but also the ones attached to him through the social graph, his ‘friend’. And that this surveillance itself implies more data tracking (GPS data) correlated to places that themselves have their own classification (airport, mall, etc).

Can a game raise issues such as online privacy? And if so, what would you like to see in such a game?
Yes, absolutely. We developped through different workshops a game called Yoogle!.[10] Yoogle! is an online game allowing users to play with the parameters of the web 2.0 and to exchange roles between the different actors of its economy. It presents itself as a game of the Goose with a track of 63 consecutively numbered spaces. The players navigate through stories, traps, challenges and riddles about the web 2.0. They can choose to play the game as a simple user, a technical administrator, a company or a State. The game at the moment is only in French, it connects to the database of information collected in the project e-traces[11] It received a fair amount of press in Belgium and France, and we use it during workshops and meetings
to give a concrete example of the functioning of web 2.0 and the issues at stake. We are really curious and interested in the development of games tackling the problems embedded in social networks, but we have a request: please, don’t force us to subscribe to facebook to play it :-)


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One Response to “Plutonian Striptease X: Constant”

  1. […] is? Essentially because of their scale. Facebook reports having more than 500 million active users.[1] This, of course, inspires all kinds of commercial dreams. Social networks barely brought something […]

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