Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Anti-Social Social Software - How far is Too Far?

The social software revolution has been, more or less, about openness. Transparency and freedom have been the order of the day. "Information wants to be free!" goes the mantra, and by and large it's hard to argue against it. All kinds of information that has always been publically available is becoming gathered together, cross referenced and made searchable by the new wave of social software mashups and visualisations, and those who expressed doubt or indignation about this approach have been dismissed as relics of a bygone era, who "just don't get it".

(I'm including myself in this, by the way. Trampoline's Enron Explorer is a perfect case in point. The information was already public domain, and we weren't even the first to visualise it - we just put a Web 2.0 face on it, and got lucky with the timing.)

But now and again there comes an application of this philosophy that makes me wonder how far is too far? Enter the charmingly named

According to the New York Times:

The site was started by Sean Bucci in 2004, after he was indicted in federal court in Boston on marijuana charges based on information from an informant.

Initially free, it now charges charges between $7.99 for a week and $89.99 for life. You don't have to be as cynical as me to take a guess as to the kind of people who will happily pay to see names and mugshots of the 4,300 informers and 400 undercover agents that the site says it has identified.

So is this too far?
Is it possible to define a clear moral line between a "good" use of public-domain data and "bad" ? Even if it is possible, should we?
Should some usages be permitted but not others? How do we tell the difference?

What is it that actually makes me uneasy about this?

The trouble is that any time you actually try to define what's acceptable and what isn't, in clear unambiguous language, you can always find a counter-example that destroys your mental partitioning of the world and means you have to start again.

The only way I can put my finger on what bothers me about the site is to refer to the intent behind it. Where the intent behind a mashup like Chicago Crime could reasonably be argued to be beneficial to society in some way, Who's A Rat is clearly not.

But even that definition is full of ambiguity. Who's A Rat may well be of immense benefit to certain segments of society (Hal Helms' "Vinny" persona, for one) and Chicago Crime could be argued to be detrimental to, say, property owners in high-crime areas who are looking to sell.

I guess the hoary old cliche applies just as much to information as to people : with great freedom comes great responsibility. We can't on the one hand argue that information needs to be free, yet on the other hand argue that it can only be free for usages that we like. Either the information is out there or it isn't, and I guess that if we want to gain the benefits of information freedom, we have to be prepared to tolerate the drawbacks.


Boyzoid said...

I would have to say this goes way over the line of acceptable. Posting the names and pictures of informants and undercover officers is putting the lives of those listed in danger (even more danger than their roles would normally dictate).

When it comes to acceptable use of information, I look at it like a judge once described pornography, I cannot accurately define it, but I know it when I see it.

Alistair Davidson said...

I agree, I think that the intent here is clearly to harm, in whatever way - even if "just" by scaring, and that, to me is why it's unacceptable.

Ben Nadel said...

I don't get shocked by much, but this is just wrong. There's quite a huge difference between having information be public and celebrating the fact that you can exploit potentially very harmful information.

Alistair Davidson said...

Ben : absolutely, it's obviously repugnant to my personal moral compass - the trouble comes when you try to define a rule as to what's wrong and what isn't. Give it a go, just as an intellectual exercise. It's trickier than you think.

Trent said...

You should discuss these Web 2.0 applications over at and see what others have to say!