What does public mean?

I was whining about being more in the twitter is public then twitter is private camp in the current great twitter debate, when pyrax made the excellent point that the different sides are using different definitions of public.

Why is twitter public?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) writes in its Surveillance Self-Defense project page on TMI on the Web:

Remember, you don't have any expectation of privacy in information that you post to the public web, and information that you post now but delete later may still persist, whether on the pages of the friends you communicated with (like your Wall Posts to a friend on Facebook), or in Google's cache of old web pages, or the Internet Archive's library of public web pages.

From a technical standpoint, the public web is any page that someone else does not have to explicitly give you permission to access it. The permission must be by means of passwords or some other type of software or hardware authorization. So, if you can read it without logging in, it's public. Something only becomes (kinda sorta) private once it's hidden behind passwords; even more so when the author has to explicitly give a user access to the information- which is the basis behind Facebook's and Google+'s circles, and Twitter's Protected Tweets.

Why is twitter private?

This is a discussion that pops up a lot on kinja, especially in good old GroupThink where the owner Slaybelle has to repeatedly state:

I must repeat: this is open community, find-able and readable by anyone on the internet. This is not a safe space community.

Kinja is obviously a public forum that anyone can read, so why is there a perception of privacy? Well, as Susan B. Barnes writes in A privacy paradox: Social networking in the United States (2006):

On the Internet, the illusion of privacy creates boundary problems. "New users and those engaged exclusively in recreational domains probably feel this illusion most strongly." (Katz and Rice, 2002, p.270)

Barnes' makes the point that a lot of this illusion of privacy comes from the conversation not being seen by a person the poster wants to keep it away from:

Social networking tools, have almost become indispensable for teenagers, who often think theirs lives are private as long as their parents are not reading their journals.

Blogging for University College London's Global Social Media Project, Nell Haynes makes much the same point:

Though you might be airing your dirty laundry on facebook for all of your friends, the person physically next to you wouldn't (or shouldn't) know.

And Cory Doctorow gave a speech on this where he argues that social networks end up encouraging performative disclosure because of the feedback loop of likes and stars and upvotes. He tells this anecdote of how two girls ended up trash talking a fellow student in the comments of obscure blog posts-they get the illusion of privacy because they don't expect friends to see it, but the admin did.

And so, this is also the dynamic that plays out in more insular web communities. Strangers rarely join in on the comments, and so there's this perception of it being a private (or semi-private) conversation. This seems to be especially true when people make assumptions about the makeup of the community.


Back in 2005, our friends at the EFF filed a friend-of-the court brief in a case where DirectTV was sued by a guy who ran a hate site with a Terms of Service (ToS) banning DirectTV representatives from viewing the site. The appellate panel ended up siding with the EFF that:

Snow's complaint fails to allege as the SCA requires that the website was configured to not be readily accessible by the general public... If by simply clicking a hypertext link after ignoring an express warning on an otherwise publicly accessible webpage one is liable under the SCA then the floodgates of litigation would open and the merely curious would be prosecuted. We find no intent by Congress to so permit... In order to be protected by the SCA an Internet website must be configured in some way as to limit ready access by the general public."

So, public or private?

Both? Emotionally and intuitively its private because it's a community built on social interactions, disclosure, and essentially creating this separate domain from the real world on which to share information.


But practically speaking? It's completely and utterly public. Like even the champions of internet privacy are saying that there's no reasonable expectation of privacy if it's not hidden behind a password-so if you want to keep it private? Make it private.

Image source: Privacy Opinions (xkcd)