Tech Bytes – Tid Bits in Tech News: Keeping Privacy Private

Until recently, file-swapping sites like Gnutella, Freenet, and Scour have been relatively unknown. These sites have been brought into the public consciousness in recent weeks thanks to the media coverage of the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA’s) lawsuit against Napster. The latest development of this technology was unveiled last Wednesday at Aimster.com.

In contrast to Gnutella, which requires users to open a select portion of their hard drive to all other users in exchange for access to a limited portion of their respective hard drives, Aimster offers a private information association. Through software that utilizes AOL Instant Messaging (AIM) buddy lists, Aimster provides its users the benefit of a closed-community within which they can share and acquire information. The nature of this private association allows for more security in downloads and encourages users to make more of their hard drive available since those who have access are the friends and acquaintances listed on their AIM buddy list.

Policymakers should pay close attention to these developments in file-sharing technology.

Policymakers should pay close attention to these developments in file-sharing technology. Email — a file-sharing technology — was the first “killer app” of the Internet and is still the most widely used application by online Americans.

Gnutella provides a glimpse at the Internet of 1995: a voluntary association based on the sharing of information. In subsequent years, millions of Americans became enchanted by the siren’s song of the online world. Servers, Web sites, and backbone became part of the public lexicon, but the essential Internet experience remained the same. Thus, Web sites can still collect information effortlessly, but most of the Internet’s users joined the digital community at a time when the Internet pioneers’ rationale for such information aggregation had been all but forgotten. This may explain why information collection practices integral to the Internet’s founding vision may appear sinister to newcomers.

Aimster provides policymakers a framework for how the privacy desired by consumers is best preserved: private networks. Today, consumers who are dissatisfied with the information-sharing practices of the Internet can create private Internet subsections to address their concerns. Internet service providers do not have to provide unfettered access to the Internet, and Web sites and servers do not have to connect to the same access lines. These private solutions have not occurred to “consumer advocates” who wish to end private communication entirely through government regulation.

Government is historically the worst violator of individuals’ privacy. To encourage it to oversee a private information association would be an error of cataclysmic proportions. Individuals’ privacy can best be preserved by furthering private associations, not inhibiting them.