One of the paradoxes of current social software is how many of your closely-guarded secrets you are obliged to entrust to a third party. Take the social blogging site LiveJournal: its centralized server allows you to set blog posts to "friends only" or "private". To use this feature, you post these semi-confidential journal entries to LiveJournal's server, and rely on it to hide your thoughts from the most of the world using its centrally-maintained list of friends to control access. LiveJournal holds your secret data in trust, as much as you trust it to keep your public data available.
We give these companies a great deal of control over our privacy and our speech - and even if we trust that company with those responsibilities now, there are no guarantees that the pressures upon and motivations of that company will stay constant over time.
The news that LiveJournal has been sold to SUP, a Moscow-based company, is the latest vivid indication of this danger. Now, LiveJournal journal entries are under the control of not only a young new company, but a new jurisdiction: Russia. What does that mean for the privacy of LiveJournal posts, and the free expression of LiveJournal users?
Despite strong protections in the Constitution and the Electronic Communication Privacy Act, United States law is by no means a perfect guarantor of privacy. It surprises many people to learn that U.S. courts have in the past decided that the simple act of handing data over to a company removes many of your constitutional protections over that data (though statutory protections remain).And, despite the United State's long tradition of being a free speech-friendly country, Six Apart, in an apparent attempt to fend off external domestic pressure, has removed content and cancelled accounts in an arbitrary manner that could easily chill speech among its users.
Countries like Russia have, legally and culturally, weaker protections over privacy and free speech than many users might have come to expect. Legal considerations aside, LiveJournal may come under far more intense pressure when run from Moscow than from the United States. The site is very popular among Russian-speakers (the common word for blog in Russian is taken from the site's name), and is used by opposition politicians there as much as by enthusiastic fan-fiction authors. The political status of free expression in Russia is on shakier ground, with journalists, online and off, assaulted and threatened by the authorities.
LiveJournallers, already disturbed by acts of control by Six Apart, could well find themselves caught up in far nastier fights over the public and private content held by SUP's servers. That's of particular concern for Russian users, or the many Russia-speaking LJers in the former-Soviet republics that surround Russia, who do not necessarily trust the political or business culture of Moscow.
Fortunately, for those concerned by the implications, LiveJournal's legacy in the world of open source and open standards means that extracting data from the service is not as painful as it might otherwise be.
But for now, the most important lesson for Americans and Russians alike, is to be cautious about with who and where you share your secrets. The Internet has given us the opportunity to make public and secure our own data; hopefully the next generation of social software will give us the tools to use these capabilities for ourselves, rather than entrust the responsibility to others.