from the public-or-private? dept
Slashdot points to the heated debate over IRSeeK, a "search engine" for public IRC channels. Although IRC channels are technically public, a lot of IRC users are uncomfortable with the notion of their off-the-cuff comments being recorded for posterity. I think the flare-up reflects the complicated dynamics of "public" versus" private" information. Although we often use these words as though they're two discrete categories, "public" and "private" are actually points along a spectrum. In the physical world we've developed an elaborate system of subtle social conventions regarding when it's appropriate to listen in on, record, and share the communications of others. Conversations overheard at a restaurant or on the bus obviously aren't as private as conversations in your living room, but people would still feel their privacy was being invaded if someone surreptitiously recorded them and then published them on the Internet. There are a lot of different degrees of "public" and "private" in our daily lives. The same principle applies in cyberspace: the fact that a communications forum is "public" doesn't necessarily mean that people are comfortable with it being recorded, archived, published, and indexed by search engines. Unfortunately the online world is so new that the relevant social conventions have yet to fully emerge. Facebook, for example, caught a lot of flack when they introduced news feeds that let you keep tabs on your friends' actions. That resistance appears to have largely evaporated as people discovered how useful the feature could be. By the same token, IRSeeK could turn out to be a very useful service, and so initial resistance shouldn't necessarily be a reason to abandon the idea. A search engine could be particularly useful for tech support forums, because it would allow users who had a particular problem to search the logs for references to their particular problem before asking about it.
But it's important that IRSeeK help to develop clear social norms so that people know when their conversations are being recorded and how the archives will be used. And to their credit, they appear to be doing just that. It has announced that the search engine will be suspended until they've found ways to address the community's concerns, and it also mentions several measure it's considering to address the community's concerns. The most important, from my perspective, is to develop an analogue to the web's robots.txt file, so that IRC operators have a straightforward way to opt out of archives and search engines. IRSeeK also mentions giving their bots standard names so that other IRC users will know their statements are being recorded. And it may avoid indexing nicknames to make it harder to track a given user's activities across multiple IRC channels. IRSeeK's swift response to community outrage and its apparent willingness to modify its services to address community concerns suggests that it may successfully navigate these tricky issues and come up with a service that's genuinely useful without being overly intrusive.