What's Public, What's Private, and Who Decides?

There are probably a dozen posts on this blog with this same title.

"What's public, what's private and who decides?" is the question that has animated my work for more than two decades. I was reminded of this last night when I attended a class at Stanford, co-taught by one of my dissertation advisers (of 20 years ago), and had a chance to return to the pattern-seeking, historical evidence hunting ways in which I was trained. Back then, trained as an historian and interested in the relationship between public and private, philanthropy seemed like a good petri dish for asking these questions.

Now this question of public and private is everywhere - and it's (finally) starting to creep people out.  I was reminded again this morning by this post in TechPresident, about the use of public voting records plus social network data, as a new tool for getting out the vote. Everyone of us who uses the Internet or a mobile phone is creating a "data trail" that well-financed enterprises can mine for their own purposes. How do we want to influence or limit that use and what rights do those with the power to aggregate and mine have over each of us as individuals?

How we use data, how we control our own data, how we respect the rights of others regarding their data - these are defining issues for our age. They are fundamentally questions about rights and power. Which means, somewhat ironically, they are questions for civil society and philanthropy (as well as government and business).

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