Data privacy in the digital age

By Kylie Robertson, Communications Officer, Edmonton

Edmonton and Calgary are great cities for innovative and creative entrepreneurs, as guest blogger Lloyed Lobo pointed out in a recent Cybera post.

In Edmonton, has been a teen social networking haven since 2003 (a full year before Facebook launched, and several years before it was made available for use by the general public), and was the brainchild of then-18 year-old Timo Ewalds. He wanted Nexopia to '€œultimately become the place to be for teens looking to express themselves to the world,'€ and the site has remained popular ever since. According to Alexa —€” the online page ranking service — it is the 4,526th most visited website in Canada (no small feat, considering it'€™s targeted at a largely Albertan crowd, with very little marketing). For comparison'€™s sake, the Globe and Mail is ranked 41st.

Recently, Nexopia has come under fire from the media for its federal privacy law violations, specifically for not permanently deleting user data from its system, therefore keeping it indefinitely.

To quote a recent CBC article:

'€œ[Nexopia] is refusing to give users the option to permanently delete their data, despite Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart’s recommendation that such an option was required to comply with Canadian law[….]

The site claims to have 1.6 million users, and more than a third of its active users are aged 13 to 18.

'€˜Given that so many of Nexopia's users are young, extra care is needed to ensure they understand the site's privacy practices,'€™ Stoddart said in a statement. She added that other websites targeting youth should take note of the probe.'€

While I agree that Internet privacy is an issue of the utmost importance (especially with rising concerns for digital over-sharing), there is another side to this, with regards to both personal user responsibility and the need to weigh the potential benefits of retaining data against privacy rights.

There needs to be a sense of personal responsibility on the part of the user for what information they are choosing to publish; while posting too much personal information (like phone numbers and addresses) can be dangerous, there is no detrimental effect to navigating these sites and posting very little information. It is up to the user'€™s discretion to decide how much (or how little) to divulge, especially with the level of knowledge we now have about Internet privacy and potential dangers in the 21st Century. Ultimately, it is impossible for Nexopia to retain what was not published on it in the first place.

It also feels like there is something of a paradox within the expectations that parents have for predominantly youth-orientated social networking sites (like Nexopia, or to an extent Facebook and MySpace). It is obviously important to parents and programmers alike to keep their younger users safe, but to what extent are users willing to sacrifice things like data privacy to achieve those goals? It'€™s starting to morph into a '€œdamned if you do, damned if you don'€™t'€ scenario for the operators of these websites. Combine that with recently proposed legislation like Bill C-11 and Bill C-30, and users are becoming more concerned about their online information being used inappropriately by both the legal authorities or website owners.

There have been many discussions around how to best manage your data when you'€™re not physically present at the keyboard, to control how it is used. Running a quick Google search for '€œhow to protect your personal information online'€ yields hundreds of thousands of results, and parents or teens concerned about their online safety can find several resources, tips and tricks. But retaining user data, with no intent to sell or distribute it, can be a valuable tool for websites and lawmakers when pursuing charges against those who register for websites with intentional malice in mind; with the proper search warrants from law enforcement, having the ability to make this data available could potentially halt online predators or Internet bullies who are using sites like Nexopia.

It'€™s a tricky realm to navigate, and certainly a different landscape from the one Nexopia was first created in. I hope that both sides are able to find a compromise that keeps its users both safe and satisfied with the state of their online privacy.