Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Unguided Missile of Good Intentions

Browsing through my ever-growing selection of edu-blogs, I found an interesting item in Tom Hoffman's blog, aptly titled "Perhaps Someone Else Could Respond to This…", linking to a blog item at the MacArthur Foundation.

The blurb on the Foundation's homepage:
The MacArthur Foundation launched its five-year, $50 million digital media and learning initiative in 2006 to help determine how digital technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life. Answers are critical to developing educational and other social institutions that can meet the needs of this and future generations. The initiative is both marshaling what is already known about the field and seeding innovation for continued growth.
The website links to a blog ("Spotlight") "where visitors can engage with initiative grantees about their work."

The blog entry in question is by one Sandra Weber, a Professor of Education at Concordia University in Montreal. In it she writes:
Young people trust adults to to be smart enough to realize that it is plain rude to go snooping on children’s websites without their permission. As public as their postings may be, it is ‘bad form’ and an invasion of privacy to visit a personal site that you know was not intended for your eyes.
The title of Tom's entry on his own blog makes it clear that he sees a problem with what Weber has written. Those who commented on his blog, as well as on the Spotlight blog, also see the problem. So why can't Weber see it?

She goes on to say:
Just as adults should not read a diary left lying around unlocked or open some one else’s mail or eavsedrop on telephone conversations, they should not snoop uninvited on cyberpostings of children they know.

How will young people learn to be trustworthy if no one will trust them?
As a parent, one thing I will be impressing on my daughters as they do things online is that anything they put online is available to anyone and everyone to see, even me, and they cannot afford to think or act otherwise. And I will be looking at what they put online, so I can be sure that they are not compromising their own safety. What I won't do is be sneaky about it. I'll tell them up front that I will be looking, and I'll tell them why. If they want to keep something private, they'll do that in a way that is private - posting stuff on the web is not and never will be.

When I look back over the MacArthur Foundation's homepage blurb (mission statement?), it's obvious that the intention is good. I'm also fairly confident that Sandra Weber's statements are well intended. But entries like Weber's may lead young people (and perhaps some educators) to wrongly assume that they can publish online materials and expect a certain level of privacy. Such a view is hopelessly naive. More to the point, it's potentially dangerous. Weber would do well to contact organisations like NetAlert (I'm sure Canada would have an equivalent agency) and talk to the experts about what can happen when young people put things online that they shouldn't.

'Public' is not the new 'private', regardless of anyone's intentions.