IMHO privacy implications of archives are debatable

Having jumped into the IDGNet reporting role with both feet I've learned there is a lot about the internet that I have yet to come to grips with and I really must do so in a hurry.

Ah, internet. Bane and boon of my life. What would I do without you, dear old friend?

Well, for a start, I wouldn’t be following a language tutor’s advice quite so often. He told me there are two steps to learning a foreign language. Step one: open mouth. Step two: insert foot.

Having jumped into the IDGNet reporting role with both feet I’ve learned there is a lot about the internet that I have yet to come to grips with and I really must do so in a hurry. Fortunately this is providing some amusement and mirth for readers who can see the deficiencies in my education I blame my teachers and parents equally for this.

I’m not talking here about things like netiquette or emoticons or the shorthand lingo that’s grown up around a communication system based on keyboards but used by people with no keyboard skills — that’s easy, basic, beginner stuff. I covered Y2K and if there’s anything that taught me it is that there’s an abbreviation for everything. LMAO, LOL, ROFL are my favourites (respectively, laugh my ass off, laugh out loud and roll on floor laughing) but I found IANAL (I am not a lawyer) alarming and have come to the conclusion that IMHO (in my humble opinion) means the complete opposite of what it says. No, my boo-boos go far beyond such simple matters.

I have instead found myself knee-deep in debate over things like the difference between a newsgroup and a mailing list. To my untutored eye they are interchangeable and two sides of the same coin. While the latter may be true the former certainly isn’t. I never really thought about it but in writing a story about the archiving of a mailing list (amusingly called a “group” not a “list”) I happily and with gay abandon used either name. My mistake, as several people have pointed out.

Most entertaining of all, however, is that when I rewrote the story for Computerworld it changed the story as it appears on the web. The old version (“Newsgroups could be breaching privacy act”) was effectively replaced with a new one (“Privacy issue over mailing list archives”) in a single Orwellian moment. Ironic, really, when you consider the story in the first place was triggered by a question about whether an archive could or should be changed to remove old postings.

Still, live and learn. The issue raised — are archives subject to the Privacy Act — is an interesting one and deserves to be debated. Principle 9 of the act is all about personal information. It says that an agency that holds personal information shouldn’t keep it for “longer than is required for the purposes for which the information” was legally gathered. All well and good, but does it apply to a posting in an archive?

I guess it comes down to what is considered “personal information”. Is that simply the kind of stuff you’d put in a CV — name, rank and serial number — or does it extend beyond that? Is an individual’s view or opinion counted as personal information? The act doesn’t say and case law has yet to build up much of a body of opinion on this kind of thing. The Privacy Commissioner wouldn’t comment because the person at the centre of the original story had the option of laying a complaint with the commission, although he hadn’t done so at the time.

As usual in any online debate there are those arguing at cross purposes, those arguing just to be bloody-minded and those cracking jokes about the proceedings, the argument, the spelling and those involved.

This is one of the great things about the internet — debate at all levels — combined with one of the worst — debate at all levels. Lessons have been learned, amusement given and stories generated so really I can’t complain. Where would I be without the net?

Brislen is IDGNet's reporter. Send email to Paul Brislen. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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