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Privacy

Location-Based Social Networks

More than a few people seem to be intimidated by the rise of location-based social networks and consider it as the clearest example of how social networks have gone a step too far in a way that violates the privacy of individuals and subjects their safety to risk. I am not one of these people and I think that these new location-based services could add a great value to our online social life.

A lot of social networks are adding location aspects to their services: Twitter has allowed the capability to geo-tag each tweet so that you can link the tweet to the physical location from which the update was made, Facebook has also recently introduced a “Places” feature that allows its users to ‘Check-in’ at known venus to inform their friends of their whereabouts. Foursquare and Gowalla are some of the few services that focus exclusively on providing location-based services to allow users to share their location with their friends.

The idea behind these services is to provide users with an easy method for sharing their location with their friends so that they can easily get together when they know where their friends are physically located at any time and get notified when they enter a location at which one of their friends have already been.

Opponents of location-based services think that the risks of sharing their location is a risky action that should not be done and it could lead to putting their property in danger as burglars can use the service to know that they are not at home.

I personally think that these risks are exaggerated and unrealistic. Location-based services available at the moment do not provide real-time information about the movement of its users- it merely provides a manual method for its users to ‘check-in’ at a location when they want to share that piece of info with their friends and makes it easy to post notes to other friends in relation to actual physical locations. The mere idea of telling your friends about your location is not new at all as users of Twitter regularly update their followers about their location by tweeting that they are at a specific place and the same goes for Facebook. It should be noted that location-based services are also identical to other social networks as they provide their users with various privacy settings that allow them to have their location updates as private or public.

I do not think that the safety risk argument against location-based services is a serious argument because the fact that you are not at your home does not necessarily mean that nobody else is there. Tweeting that you are not at home would also not on its own inform a burglar about the location of your house except if you posted its location as a public venue which you should not do by any chance.

Location-based services do provide a new way to socialise and interact with your friends and can be great fun to use, but even though I am a regular user of Foursquare, I still do not make updates about every single location I go to. The emails you write, the blog posts you make, and updates published on Facebook could cause you harm and embarrassment if you do not use common sense when using their services, location-based services are not different than any of these.

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Licensed to Blog in Saudi

I cannot really claim that I was surprised when I heard that the Ministry of Culture and Information of Saudi had declared its intentions to pass an amendment to its law regulating publications so that it extends its scope to cover web publication in a way that will require all website owners, bloggers, and forum administrators to register their websites with the Ministry of Culture and Information. I was shocked, but I was not surprised to hear that come from Saudi. Fortunately for our Saudi neighbours after the web went mad over this announcement, the Saudi government reached to international news agencies denying that the new amendment will cover blogs and forums and that it will only extend to news related websites.

In the original announcement of the new amendment the Ministry of Culture and Information claimed that the new regulation is intended to help protect the Saudi public and does not intend to restrict the freedom of expression. The statements made by the official spokesperson on TV explicitly mention blogs and forums, so we do not know if it is safe to believe that the regulations will only cover news related websites.

It is very difficult to imagine how this upcoming regulation would be able to distinguish between news related “websites” and blogs. There is no technical definition of what a blog is – it is obviously a website, and it can be dedicated to publishing blog posts about news, so what that make it a news related website? Or would blogs written in a personal capacity with no commercial interest be excluded on that basis? We do not know, what we know for sure is that freedom of expression cannot be seriously enforced or even promoted when you require anonymous individuals to disclose their personality and register their names and addresses with the government. It is clear that the motive of the law is to make it easy to catch anyone who writes something improper on the internet.

I think it is reasonable to regulate websites when they relate to a specific industry in a specific region, for example, the sale of pharmaceuticals should be regulated whether offline or online. The law should be amended (if needed) to address the change of technology in the way those activities are conducted. However, there are certain aspects of our lives which have been totally revolutionized by the internet and the principles by which they had been governed just do not work anymore in this new web based reality. You still should be able to hold people accountable, but governments will not be able to stop people from publishing what they think and sharing that thought with other people. This ease at which communication is spread over the internet is a fundamental aspect of it and that cannot be stopped without rendering the internet totally unusable.

Creating a culture of accountability does not necessarily mean censorship and restricted access, this culture can be reached if we put clear rules in place that specify the rights and responsibilities of each one of us and have these rights examined and enforced in courts of law that are impartial and just.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.