The past few weeks, I've been following the controversy around Rapleaf, a company that got some attention in early 2006 as an expanded, more powerful version of Ebay's feedback system, which would allow people to build and look up the "reputations" of other by entering an email address. Profiles on Rapleaf can include everything from your age to your political affiliations to what books you want to buy, as well as testimonials from people who have done business with you (though it's unclear how Rapleaf verifies that these testimonials are legitimate). In short, Rapleaf billed itself as a way to find out what you were getting into before entering a business transaction.
That proposition quickly became rather ironic once controversy surrounding the company started picking up speed in late August 2007, when some bloggers received email notifications from Rapleaf informing them that they had been searched.
While some of the backlash was directed at the "spam" factor of receiving annoying email invitations to Rapleaf, the most vocal outrage was over the potential invasion of privacy.
Rapleaf was already linked to another social network search site, Upscoop, where entering your own email address and password allows you to look up the social network affiliations of everyone in your address book en masse. What it failed to make transparent at the time, however, was its relation to a third company, Trustfuse, which sells public, but often difficult-to-find, personal data to marketing companies using Rapleaf and Upscoop technologies.
They were also very quick to remind people that all the information they had gathered had been publicly posted, and that all they was doing was "automating the search process." There are, however, a couple of kinks in this defense, the first being that, though the information they find is more of less "public," the information used to find it -- namely, personal email addresses -- is not. What's more, Rapleaf may use the internal searches on some social networking sites in order to locate profiles, despite the fact that sites like MySpace prohibit use "in connection with any commercial endeavors" unless explicitly approved by MySpace in their terms of service.
In the grand scheme of things, what Rapleaf seeks to do sits fairly low on the scale of threats to digital privacy. But putting aside the ambiguity of how "public" social networking data really is, Rapleaf's practices in fact raise another question: who can claim ownership rights to that data? With the rise of social networking and blogging, many of us have developed a new sense of public privacy, information that is posted in order to form a digital persona that allows us to participate in online communities.
That information is necessarily public, intended for people who are unable to drop by and get to know us over coffee, but it is nevertheless personal. What is posted on these sites is not just a roll-call of favorite bands and movies and witty quotations, but detailed identities within personally selected Internet communities and networks.
To then take that information and sell it is to say that not only are we for sale, but that we don't have any financial stake in our own transformation into commodity.
In short, Rapleaf's selling of this information for profit offends what may not necessarily be a sense of privacy, but a sense of ownership.
So it begs the question -- can our increasingly elaborate online identities be considered intellectual property? And, if so, who holds the licensing and distribution rights?
As a final note, in the spirit of thorough research, I entered one of my own email addresses into Rapleaf. An hour later, I discovered my age, my occupations ("international badass, film production slave, academic superstar" -- so probably not what marketers are looking for), my location (three years out of date), and at least two social networks that I haven't been active on in years.
Despite how irrelevant this information seemed, I still got a chill from seeing it, because a single click on any of that information leads you to my friends, my personal blog, and several games of Scrabble that I'm losing at pretty badly. I could have sent an opt-out email email to Rapleaf, but seeing that information posted made me realize that anyone could call it up whenever they wanted, and, next time, I wouldn't know about it for up to a week (Rapleaf sends out notifications of searches on the following Monday), so I ended up registering just so I could continue deluding myself about the privacy of those embarrassing vacation photos. Which is probably exactly what they wanted.