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May 2010

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Mia Sullivan

Hi Aspen,
Thank you for sharing your report from this presentation. I write because your reference to the use of "deception" by quasi-governmental agencies investigating housing discrimination is, I think, misleading, and portrays this work in an unnecessarily nefarious light (particularly when compared to the other examples you cite). I think you are referring to the practice of "testing", which is when community members are asked to apply for apartments or view houses for sale. If the "testers" who are not white are routinely told to look in different neighborhoods than testers who are white, if testers who are parents or unmarried or disabled or veterans are discouraged from renting, then an agency that investigates fair housing has some basis to look more closely at what is going on and what is the need for education, outreach and action in a particular geographic area. Is this practice unethical? Is it wrong? I don't think so. As someone who has worked with fair housing agencies in the past, I think it just helps to validate and shine a light on an all-too-familiar scenario for many in our communities: the times when we have been told openly, but without a lawyer or witness present, if you are [fill in the blank], you need not apply....

Aspen Baker

Yes! I'm so glad you wrote and described this in more detail. As much fun as it is to listen to lawyers argue, some legal terms like "deception" mean much different things to the rest of us in the real world. The panelists were exploring the legal definition of "deception" and used the two examples - of intellectual property infringement and housing discrimination against people of color - to show when "deception" can be used for good, legally. They gave specific examples where the law has already decided very clearly that the kind of testing strategy you describe is both legal and ethical in the pursuit of justice. The nefarious examples were really my spin - I don't agree that defense attorneys should be legally allowed to snoop around private networks of people who accuse them of crimes, but there were panelists at the conference who would disagree with me and would say that this kind of "deception" (the kind I think is wrong) is important and useful and ethical to fight crime. I think the point is that there are real differences that exist in the legal community about how to deal with online privacy and data-collection and they are looking to real-world examples to try to make sense of what should be legal or not. "Deception" as a legal concept was referred to in a number of ways with very strong differences in opinion about when it is justifiable and when it is not, given what can be competing needs for justice and privacy.

Jeff Jackson

Many thanks Aspen for your attention to the dark-side of social media (and our related naivete) when it comes to privacy and to a degree the related issues of security and transparency. I was especially interested in your following comments:

"Most of the conferences and workshops I attend about nonprofits and social media address the digital divide, but mostly I hear it referred to in regards to who has access to technology. Rarely have I heard these discussions to include the digital divide between those who know the risks of online participation and can protect themselves and those who cannot. This seems like an incredibly important part of how we think about the cost and benefits of social networking in our organizations, communities and towards our social change missions."

I'm a social media fan and user, but to a point. As a Gmail user, I liked the tangible example of what Gmail, FB and Twitter datamining is capable of via their custom advertising. I've personally experienced a couple things with Gmail and FB that made me remember my pre social-media days with labor and human rights organizing under the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and how government data stealing from non-profits led to hit lists and horrible consequences; social service agencies ended the use of written client lists. I'm still involved in international conflict resolution work and continue to be amazed at what gets shared on-line by some (more bc of how mis-information is created from snippets), even after all the attention to illegal wiretapping recently. My paranoid side continues to wonder about that YouTube video that traces FB venture capital back to NSA and Defense Dept types (I wish I were better at adding links). While I value the social part of social media and how the vehicle can help mobilize for good, it seems like not until a bank or HMO enables identify theft via a hack or human error (with a very kindly worded apology to thousands) does this vulnerability hit us at home.

Aspen Baker

Thanks Jeff, for this very thoughtful and detailed post. As a peace-and-conflict studies major whose work is now focused on transforming the abortion conflict, I am always interested in learning more about conflict resolution work, and yours sounds interesting!

But, back to your question. I'll just expand more on my thinking and experiences and see if that gets at your question, which I think is, "how do privacy risks with social networking really effect nonprofits?". Is this right?

My experiences being in workshops and at conferences for nonprofits and social media is that there is an idea being promoted that we should all - across the npo sector - maximize our use of social media tools in order to spread our messages and promote our mission. I generally agree with this sentiment. And, because these tools are the future and so important to our goals, then we need to make sure that those who can't afford them have access to them, so that we don't leave anyone behind in our online organizing strategies. We are supposed to find ways to engage and reach our communities, clients, and constituencies through these tools, and encouraged to use third-party platforms and widgets to maximize our scarce resources. If we are utilizing these tools, encouraging others to adopt them, and helping increase access to them, then, I think we should also be doing our part to inform people about the risks of using them, and to be pro-active as a sector about protecting our rights and privacy.

Your question has helped me get more focused on my own take-away from this conference, which is that I believe our sector, which is increasingly relying on social media and networking tools for fundraising, communications and services, has an important leadership role to play in shaping conversations and policies to protect ourselves and those we serve, and/or organize.

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