I haven’t blogged about the AOL search record disclosure fiasco, nor do I often blog about privacy issues in general, because the topic is so well covered elsewhere. (See Michael Zimmer, Lauren Weinstein, EFF, etc.) But one aspect of the AOL episode that I find strange is how the internet chatter (I refuse to use the word ‘meme’) shifted so quickly from concern for privacy to delight over the content of the records. Lists started popping up all over of the crazy things people search for (see BoingBoing for examples). And of course these were AOL users, one of the lowest Internet classes and a favorite target for ridicule.
I know it’s all just harmless fun, more or less, but beyond the joking, I think this is an instance of two core geek values colliding: privacy and "free culture." Free culture appears to trump privacy, at least in the sense that privacy is seen as something for corporations to honor. Free copying is something that citizens will do, regardless of the privacy consequences. Once something is out there, there’s no getting it back. Or at least it seems to me that that’s the underlying model here. It’s evident also in this casual statement in a recent Wired story:
AOL has apologized and taken down the data, but it is now widely available on the internet and some have set up search engines that query the records.
The phrasing — "it is now widely available" — suggests that individuals aren’t responsible for continuing to make the data available. It’s just the way things work.