The Ethical Social Network

With Facebook under fire for inadequate privacy protections, how has one of the oldest academic social networks avoided the same fate?

April 3, 2018
 

Have you heard of HASTAC?

Founded in 2002, the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory is thought to be one of the oldest academic social networks on the internet.

Created two years before Facebook and a year before MySpace, HASTAC (pronounced “haystack”) helped to define what social networking online could look like. HASTAC's users can create blog posts and start discussions, as well as post job ads and opportunities. Each user has a profile page and can contact other users through the site. Trending posts on the HASTAC homepage this week include calls for research papers and conference scholarships, an invite to a virtual meet-up for graduate students, and blog entries on topics such as "20 Things Higher Ed Can Learn From the Parkland High School Kids."

And yet, unlike other social networks that followed it, HASTAC has managed to remain scandal-free. There have been no mass boycott movements and no accusations that the network ever misused anyone’s data.

Cathy Davidson, co-founder and co-director of HASTAC, and a professor of cultural history and technology at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, said that the secret to the network’s good relationship with its users has been its decision to treat user data with respect from the outset. Privacy and security have been priorities for the network since its inception, and are built into every facet of the network.

Run as a nonprofit with support from Arizona State University, the City University of New York and others, HASTAC has pledged to “never, ever, ever” sell or share users’ data with third parties, said Davidson. To do so would be to destroy the site's reputation, "and reputation, in academe, is everything," she said.

In the early 2000s, when HASTAC was founded, Davidson said, many academics were concerned about how ed-tech companies like Blackboard could use student data for the purposes of “surveillance, rather than collaboration.” HASTAC set out to do things differently -- applying humanistic principles to its decision making, and approaching ethical issues with academic rigor.

With some 16,000 active users -- many academics, students and social activists interested in education and technology -- the network’s data is hugely attractive to ed-tech companies, said Davidson. She said she is courted daily by companies interested in obtaining HASTAC’s data but has never been tempted to share information with for-profits. "We've made a promise not to," she said.

HASTAC decided early on that it wanted an open network, but not an anonymous one. “We wanted to keep out for-profits and trolls,” said Davidson. But the decision not to allow anonymity has alienated some users, she said. Additionally, checking that users are real people is labor intensive, and HASTAC’s small staff all have full-time jobs in addition to their duties running HASTAC.

The challenge of balancing openness with responsibility is an issue as old as the internet itself, said Davidson. “Tim Berners Lee talked about this when he invented the web -- that anonymity is both a promise and a problem.”

Elizabeth Grumbach, a researcher at Arizona State University and director of digital content and special programs at HASTAC, said privacy is hugely important to the network's users, and something she frequently receives questions about. Every time a user posts on HASTAC, they are asked whether they want the post to be private, public or restricted to members of the HASTAC network or to specific groups within the network. The site's privacy policies are also prominently displayed and written in a way that is easy to understand, said Grumbach. “We respect your privacy” is written at the bottom of every page of the website, next to a link to the site’s privacy policy.

In addition to explaining the steps that the network will take, the site also explains what users can do to protect their own data. The site wants to foster conversation around these issues and takes an academic approach to discussions around privacy and security. “The network has grown up around these ideas,” said Grumbach. “We’re serving a network of people, not data points.”

Davidson said that people talking about ethics in technology “as if it is a new thing” is “kind of crazy.” A number of universities have recently added ethics classes to their computing courses, but Davidson argues that ethics shouldn’t be an add-on. “You have to build it into the structure from the beginning. When you build something, you have to ask: What does this affordance allow and what does it prohibit? This is something we really took seriously as we were building HASTAC.”

HASTAC is not unique among academic social networking sites in its approach to protecting users' personal information. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, project director at the Humanities Commons, a network created by the Modern Language Association, said that her site has since its inception kept concerns for user privacy in mind. Fitzpatrick said there are two main principles underwriting the site -- don’t collect information that you don’t need, and be transparent about what you do collect, how it is used and why. “As our members want to use the network both to share their work with the world and to communicate with known colleagues, it was extremely important for us to make clear what portions of their activity within the network are visible and to whom,” said Fitzpatrick.

Not all academic social networking sites take the same responsible approach to user privacy, however. Academia.edu and ResearchGate have both been subject to criticism from some academics who dislike the way their data are used by the sites. Jon Tenant, a paleontologist and open science advocate who has criticized these for-profit academic networking sites, said that many researchers are “blind or at least complacent to the fact that they are typically the service provider, product and consumer for external companies within the current academic ecosystem.”

Davidson said it is "hard to know" whether users at HASTAC understand that the site is treating their data differently than it would be treated at for-profit sites. But, she said, "I do think we are very much trusted. I've never heard anyone say that HASTAC exploited them -- if they did, I think they'd have difficulty proving it."

As for Facebook, which recently updated its privacy policy in response to the uproar about the way Cambridge Analytica obtained millions of users' data, Davidson feels they are doing "way too little, way too late."

David Garcia, a computational social scientist at the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna, has studied privacy issues in social networks. Garcia said that it is clear at for-profit social networking sites like Facebook that users are not the customer, but the product. The customers are advertisers that place targeted ads or third parties that buy user data.

HASTAC and similar nonprofit academic social networking sites appear to be the antithesis of this model, said Garcia. They are an example of how a social networking site can act as a “common good” by serving its users, not advertisers or third parties, he said.

Of course, it should be noted that sites like Facebook are operating at a totally different scale to HASTAC. Facebook has more than two billion users, compared with HASTAC’s 16,000. With more people comes more potential for things to go wrong. But making data privacy a priority in the design of a social network from the beginning could help avoid this. “Privacy is not just a problem to solve once the whole system is set up,” said Garcia.

Problems at sites like Facebook don’t stem from “bad algorithms,” said Garcia, as has been recently suggested in the media. “The real problem comes from the design and purpose of these sites, not the technicalities of how they process the data,” he said.

Recently Garcia has been considering how much control individuals have over their private information at sites like Facebook. His early research suggests that sharing private data “is a collective decision and not an individual one.” Even if you don’t give permission to a company to collect information about you, information about you can still be collected through your friends on social media.

“My empirical research suggests that the problems we have been observing with Facebook are not a bug, they are a feature, and they will eventually appear in other platforms,” he said.

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