Once it’s on the internet you can’t get it back

I had a slightly surreal phone call. It was from someone inquiring about something I’d been involved a few years ago. After the call I wondered about how they found my number. A quick Google search and I found lots of websites had my phone number. In promoting the thing I’d been working on I had added my phone to a website. Lots of other websites scraped that website and so it’s data became their data.

A product manager, or someone assuming the responsibilities of a product manager, made choices about how those websites were going to work. They considered ‘their user’ as the person visiting their website and wanted to provide a wide range of information. They assumed that data on the public web is free for all to use. And they probably didn’t spend a great deal of time thinking about the original owner of the data, how they should have some control over how that data is used, and what problematic or harmful things could result from it being used in ways they didn’t intend.

Today, product managers working with public data sets or building products that allow users to share information about themselves publicly have no excuse for not considering the wider impacts of their choices. It’s irresponsible to assume that because data is open for all to see that this means it’s free for all to use. It’s irresponsible to push the responsibility for making those choices onto users and not inform them of the risks or give them the tools to manage the data they share.

Luckily for me, the thing I was working on was very niche so I don’t expect much interest and I’m pretty good at ignoring phone calls, but it made me think about how once we’ve added something to the internet we lose control over where it goes and how it’s used.