Principles underpinning Project MoodleNet: 3. ‘Private’

Private (CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers)

The principles underpinning Project MoodleNet are:

  1. Open
  2. Safe
  3. Private
  4. Ethical
  5. Transparent
  6. Connecte​d

But what do these mean in practice? In this third of a series of posts, we explore what ‘privacy’ means as regards this project.

3. What ‘Private’ means in practice

User data is a valuable commodity to those who want to sell and market products. It is not a surprise, therefore, that advertising-fuelled companies such as Facebook and Google would want their users to share more of it.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook is widely quoted as saying back in 2010 that “privacy is no longer the social norm”. Likewise, Eric Schmidt said in 2009 while Google’s Chief Executive that, “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Privacy is important to society, even if people choose not to exercise that right. As Edward Snowden, activist and whistleblower, neatly puts it:

“Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

Privacy offline is different to privacy online, primarily because of the data trails we leave behind us. Tim Lott, until recently a columnist in The Guardian newspaper, summed up the difference that the internet makes:

“Unwittingly (as the internet was hardly a thing when I started) my entire life is now online; not a consequence I planned for. When I started journalism, you told a story and it was forgotten the next day. Now, those stories are immortal.”

What is true of journalism is true of everything we share publicly via social networks. It is all available to anyone who can use a search engine.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) point out:

“[I]t doesn’t take much forethought to realize that there are countless privacy pitfalls in a world where a near-endless stream of personal bits is indiscriminately posted indefinitely stored and quietly collected and analyzed by marketers, identity thieves, and professional government snoops in America and abroad. The public controversies that have erupted to date — Facebook’s drastic terms of service changes and Google Buzz’s forced sharing of email contacts — are only the first snares in a rapidly growing thicket of social networking privacy issues.”

Privacy matters because it allows us to be autonomous individuals while protecting us from harm. It gives us space to try out new opinions and identities without fear of recrimination. We can think out loud.

Examples of this abound in courses created within instances of Moodle’s learning platform. Resources, thoughts, and ideas can be shared with and between learners, with the contents of those courses remaining private by default.

While any social network should have strong and robust options and safeguards around privacy, this is particularly important for Project MoodleNet. As stated in the white paper, we believe with Chris Poole that “complexity in identity is what defines our humanity.” Our online identities are not singular, nor are they simply a mirror of a unified self that we present offline.

With Project MoodleNet, therefore, we will collect only the personally identifying information that individuals wish to share, and which is necessary to provide the service. We will allow users to control multiple identities. We will not sell user data. Users will be given fine-grained controls over who can see personal data and information they have added to the system, and have the option to export and/or remove it under the terms of the GDPR.

Conversations and user activity within Project MoodleNet will be encrypted and assumed to be private unless it sharing it has been agreed by all those involved. We envisage most educators will wish to share their resources openly using an appropriate license, but we will also facilitate private sharing. Privacy, we believe, is a right, not a privilege.

As with safety, privacy has many elements, some of which are technical, and some of which are cultural. An example of the difference can be seen with Signal, the messaging app. It can prevent screenshots being taken of messages to improve user privacy. This does not prevent, however, copying and pasting, nor does it stop someone using a different device to a photo of those messages.

To sum up, unlike Facebook’s often wilful obfuscation and confusion around privacy controls over the last decade, Project MoodleNet will empower educators by giving them granular control over every aspect of their privacy settings. In doing this, we believe that they will be in a better position to connect with one another and improve our world.