Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Blog Privacy

The upcoming "Washington sex blog" lawsuit is a reminder to all of us that blogging carries certain risks. For those of you who have been living under a stone for the last few months the case concerns a young lady who wrote a blog about her challenging life trying to juggle simultaneous sexual relationships with six different men. All good clean fun you would think. Problem is that one of the gentlemen concerned found out about the blog and wasn't entirely happy about certain details of his recreational preferences being made public. So being American, and a lawyer, he sued.

Those of us interested in the case are not following it because of our perverted interest in the potentially lurid testimony if the case goes to trial. Of course not. Nobody in America is interested in stuff like that. The much more important aspect of the case is that it should help establish whether people who keep blogs are obligated to protect the privacy of the people with whom they interact offline.

Of course I don't expect anyone is going to sue me over what I write in Proper Course. But I do have a concern about how far it is sensible for me to go in writing about other people -- the people I race with, other sailors, my friends, my family.

I don't try to be deliberately offensive but I do understand that some of the incidents I describe may look totally different to another party involved. For example I am sure that the other sailor involved in this mark rounding probably wouldn't agree with my account. Would he be upset if he found out what I wrote about him?

Or the folk I write about may just not appreciate that what they say or do in the context of a casual interaction or a sailboat race ends up on the The Interweb and is accessible to anyone who knows how to use The Google.

Of course I can't avoid writing about other sailors. How could I write about sailboat racing and not do so? So without setting out to define anything as formal as a privacy policy, I have found myself adopting certain practices to protect the innocent and guilty alike...

  • I very rarely use the real names of the people I write about. So even if you recognize yourself in one of my posts, your friends at work and the club (or even your family) won't know it's you. Sometimes I make up silly names like Alphonse, Bertie and Cedric in the Mark Rounding post. Sometimes I use initials such as the mysterious "S." who helped me start a Laser fleet a couple of years ago.

  • The only times that I can recall using real names of people I sail with and write about, (a) they were already nationally well known names in the sailing world, and (b) I only wrote good stuff about them like the fact that they were great coaches or that they won a race.

  • I don't even use my own real name though it wouldn't be too hard for anyone to discover it given the two years of clues I have written. And a few people who know me well and have stumbled on the blog have, of course, recognized who the writer is.

  • I don't even mention by name the clubs that I sail at regularly. This may seem like a ridiculous conceit to some folk. But I don't want the other members of my clubs to be worrying that I am spying on them and that anything they do may end up on this blog. You know what they say: what goes on at the yacht club stays at the yacht club. But this almost seems deceitful. After all some of the things that happen at the yacht club will end up in this blog. Would it be fairer if everyone knew of that possibility?

I'm not sure if these informal rules are the right ones. Am I being too cautious or too protective of the privacy of myself and my fellow sailors? I'd be interested to hear your views, especially if you write a blog yourself. How do you strike the right balance on this question?


Anonymous said...

Luckily in the US you guys are now classed as journos ;) (Sort of and sometimes)

The EFF has a heap of interesting information. In fact the EFF are the coolest guys in the world.

Pat said...

We had an interesting go-around and some very stressful times once when someone didn't appreciate being written about ... even when we didn't use a name, but showed a picture of boat in which the crew weren't recognizable. Oh well. Lawyuhs.

Tony said...

I think I semi-consciously follow rules very similar to yours. After a while though, I stopped worrying about making up names for people I was racing against - anyone who knows my fleet would have been able to work out who was who anyway. I also gave up trying to keep myself anonymous for similar reasons.

My absolute rule though is to never say anything about anybody in the blog that I wouldn't happily say to their face in public. Seems obvious, but I've had to pull myself up a couple of times.

Anonymous said...

America we love our Lawyers

I do not say anything bad about folks, at least with a name, keeps it simple.

I use real names only if it is already out there in public and it's something good, or ok, or so so, or not sueable (is that a word?)


Carol Anne said...

Since the incident Pat referred to, I generally use nicknames. If the person has an online presence, such as a blog, I will use the nickname that person has chosen as an online identity. Otherwise, I try to make up good nicknames that tell something about a person without specificially identifying him or her, although often people in the know will know who I'm writing about.

The people I blog about know what I'm doing and don't have a problem with it. Some of them have even told me they like the nicknames I've come up with.

Anonymous said...

I generally just write about myself and am very very wary about what I say. I never know when one of the "other" personalities is going to show up and take me for all I'm worth.

Did I just write that out loud?

Katinka said...

I'm reading this with interest, because I recently asked a related question myself on guidelines for Blogging etiquette. My personal approach is a bt hit and miss...with some people I use pseudonyms and others (who I know wouldn't object) I use real names.

When I started my own blog, I just jumped right in and used my real I wonder if it would have given me more freedom to have assumed a nick-name instead.

Mallard said...

I have this lin k posted on my blog. Kinda "The Basics" but some people dont 'think' sometimes! Ya, it's probably common courtesy not to use real names etc etc.
Thanx & cyalayta
Mal :)

Anonymous said...

My picture is all over my blog (and sometimes that of others) so I'm not overly obsessed with privacy.

I don't write about things I dont wish others to know about.

I try and keep it reasonbly light.

I use a pseudonym to avoid being googled by students/parents etc.

I try not to publish anything I wouldnt say in public or to someone's face.

I think I should just point out. I was 11 in 1984 and therefore should not be confused with the other Walter Mondale, the pseudonym relates to an inane interest in presidential history. I'll keep with it untill I receive a gently worded cease and desist from the former Veep's lawyers. I like to think he's appreciate the tribute.

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