Understand limitations of your online privacy

Life is about choices. We all make decisions almost every second of our life.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Life is about choices. We all make decisions almost every second of our life. Some are menial...should I floss and brush my teeth today...while others more significant...should I say "I do"?

Regardless, every decision we make will have consequences, be it small or big, bad or good. Not flossing may lead to decay, but this can be easily fixed by my trusty dentist. Saying "I do" may ring the death knell for my independence, but it can also offer a lifetime of marital bliss.

We all hope the decisions we make are the right ones, though it's inevitable that we can't always get them all right. But, right or wrong, if we were given the tools to make informed decisions, we should then be accountable for the decisions we make, along with the resulting consequences.

U.S. blogger Rosemary Port this week said she plans to file a US$15 million suit against Google for violating her privacy. The search giant was ordered by the New York Supreme Court to reveal Port's identity after she posted harsh remarks about a model on Google's Blogger.com site. The model had sued the Internet firm, demanding information on Port's then-anonymous blog post.

Port argued that blogs served as modern-day forums for expressing personal opinions and shouldn't be regarded as fact--a notion that was later thrown out by the judge. In its defense, Google said it abides by legal processes including subpoenas and court orders, and observes judiciary instructions like all law-abiding organizations.

Online forums are abuzz over Port's lawsuit, with one observer highlighting that the U.S. First Amendment includes the right to speak anonymously and this should be extended to the online channel. While that may be true, as long as the U.S. has defamation laws, the right to anonymity would obviously then come with certain limitations.

With the speed and ease the Internet offers as a platform for anyone anywhere to voice personal opinions, I think it has become too easy to forget that no one is above the law.

You still need to take responsibility for your actions, and words. If you dare to say it, then dare to own it. The cloak of anonymity should be afforded to those whose lives would be at risk if their identities were exposed, and not to be abused as a copout for people to make snide remarks about someone they dislike.

It's not about a violation of your online privacy. It's about accountability, and about recognizing that under some circumstance, the law will take precedence over your right to privacy.

And other times, it's about taking ownership of your privacy.

Earlier this month, an engineer took issue with a Singapore-based portal that provides search services, including one that allows users to seek out people in the country. The engineer keyed his name and was stunned to find his home address listed on the site. He said he never gave consent for the site to publish his personal details.

If the site had obtained his details from the company's other business units, then it should rightly be taken to task. And shame on the company for not knowing better.

But, if the engineer volunteered the information specifically to the search and directory site, then he probably has no recourse. The portal openly brands itself a "search and directory service", offering search utilities for information on people and businesses in Singapore. The portal also carries a terms of service document stating that anyone who chooses to use its search and directory engine, must agree to a set of conditions, including one that gives the site rights to publish information provided by its users. Users concerned about their online privacy should refrain from accessing the site completely.

Taking better ownership to protect your online privacy is especially pertinent in Singapore where there are no general privacy laws.

That's also a safer bet against relying solely on companies to guard your privacy, particularly when we've witnessed how banks, and even governments, have had their systems hacked and customer details breached.

Sure, you can sue the heck of these companies--and don't we all love any chance to take our governments to court--but it'll be more effective to make wiser decisions about the kind of personal information you want to give, and under what circumstances should you give them.

We may all have a right to privacy, but this right comes with limitations that are governed either by laws or conditions that we will have no absolute control over. So we need to take some responsibility in taking the necessary steps to protect our own privacy, instead of pointing fingers even if that's the easiest way out.

Life is about making choices. And we must be accountable for our own decisions, whether we make them online or not.

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