Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in!
Ezra has graciously asked me to mind the shop today, and I've gladly obliged. (I guess this is what it's like to be an Army reservist.) Anyway, I want to direct your collective attention to a startling development on the privacy front. Apparently, AIM is Big Brother:
America Online, Inc. has quietly updated the terms of service for
its AIM instant messaging application, making several changes that is
sure [sic] to raise the hackles of Internet privacy advocates.
The revamped terms of service,
which apply only to users who downloaded the free AIM software on or
after Feb. 5, 2004, gives AOL the right to "reproduce, display,
perform, distribute, adapt and promote" all content distributed across
the chat network by users.
I can't remember the last time I wrote something on AIM that could be "performed." Still, it's a vaguely alarming trend. It doesn't seem that bad at first, but consider this: Personally, I communicate with friends, especially faraway ones, with AIM way more than I do on the phone. If the phone company had claimed the right to reproduce, redistribute, or godforbid perform recorded phone conversations, people would go nuts. But when it happens on AIM, which is arguably used more frequently than the phone, people are more or less complacent. Why?
I think it has a lot to do with the Internet being seen as a giant, shared thing. I remember posting a link to my friend's livejournal once, only to have her yell at me for making her innermost thoughts public knowledge. I was baffled. You posted them on the Internet!, I thought to myself. With the advent of blogs, which rely crucially on the idea that communications are non-secretive, this idea has only been reinforced. But in a way, my friend was right. Increasingly, people are turning to the Internet for purposes that are decidedly personal. AIM is just one example. VoIP, a weird (and apparently government-regulated) merger of phone and internet, is another.
The 'net is attractive to companies, because it makes it easy to gather massive amounts of data in what is essentially a public forum. But what happens when people try to carve off small chunks of it for personal use? In other words: Is AIM stepping over the line in trying to copyright your private communications? Or are you stepping over the line by claiming some expectation of privacy within a "publicly available worldwide system of interconnected computer networks"?
Can't wait to see what Lessig thinks of this one. Incidentally, my AIM name is WordOMatic. (Grade school nickname that stuck.) Drop me a line sometime. Just don't tell me anything you wouldn't tell AOL.