The most important thing you could ever learn about how the Internet works is that everything you put on it lives forever. EVERYTHING. You can delete a photo or an update or a tweet, but there is a record of it out there. You will never fully scrub the Internet of that photo you were tagged in – drunk, wearing a top hat and riding a donkey during spring break. But, you can control where it’s located, who has “ownership” of it and its context.
Taking control of your online identity is a lot easier than it sounds and is the single best thing you can do to improve the quality of your life online. We spoke with Michele Neylon, CEO of Blacknight, multiple social media award winner and black belt in online identity advocacy for tips on controlling your content, domain names, hosting and the biggest privacy mistakes users make.
.ME: Why is it important to have your own domain name?
Michele Neylon: In a word, control. If you have a domain name and website that represents who you are or what you are doing, you become the master of your own online destiny. Register a name, build a site – it doesn’t have to be fancy, there are loads of great auto site builders out there – and fill it with your content.
If you rely on a free platform like Facebook to retain photos, updates and basically keep your life (or business), not only is it unreliable (social media sites are not cloud storage!), but they are free because YOU ARE THE PRODUCT. They want to sift through the mountains of data you are giving them about yourself. When you freely give away your content like that, although you might not be realizing that you are giving it away, you have no control over what happens to it. Privacy settings may stop strangers from peering into your life but they don’t stop Facebook from harvesting your data. And nothing stops these corporations from selling your data to the highest bidder.
Also if you have your own domain name you can control your personal brand and more importantly your own email.
.ME: Does having email and content on your own domain prevent your data from being appropriated?
Neylon: Well not entirely, but it makes it harder. If you have your own custom domain name and email, you can point it to whatever content platform you choose. You can move it around. Want to use Tumblr? Fine, point it there. If Tumblr shuts down it’s not a problem – you can point the domain somewhere else.
.ME: Will all of your content be saved in the event that a service is discontinued because you hosted its content off your own domain and not, say, Tumblr?
Neylon: It depends how technical you are. At the simplest level, a domain name e.g. yourname.me -I’ve been using michele.me for years and I love it – can be pointed at your Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn accounts. Ideally, it’d be better if you setup your own personal blog using a self-hosted install of WordPress but I realize that some people might find that a little daunting. Most hosting companies make it pretty easy though, and you can usually get an “auto installer” or “one click” install and as long as you can follow instructions you, can get setup.
The key thing is the domain, because the domain is your identity. In a Post-Snowden world people are more concerned about their data: who has access to it, who controls it? If you have your own hosting account, then you have more control and can choose a hosting provider whose servers are in a good country from a data privacy perspective, i.e. where there are robust privacy laws. Hosting companies and registrars offer lots of different services how much or how little you want to do is up to you.
.ME: How can a customer tell if a hosting company will respect their privacy?
Neylon: That’s not the simplest unfortunately. You could look at a few things, like where they are based and what sort of reputation they have. Otherwise, word of mouth tends to be very reliable. Just ask around.
.ME: Data privacy policies vary from one country to the next, what do you believe is reasonable and why should people be concerned about data privacy?
Neylon: At the moment most countries seem to be basing their legislation around the European Union’s as their standards are very strict. The big exception is the United States where there is essentially no proper framework, which is a pity.
The important thing to look at is whether or not the host operated under a good data protection/ privacy regime i.e., will they respect your privacy and do what they can to secure your data or will they trample all over your rights and give out your details to the highest bidder. For example, we won’t discuss ANY client details with a 3rd party. It’s not worth the risk as we’re bound by Irish data protection laws and I’m yet to hear of anyone being sued for being over protective.
.ME: What is your biggest concern about your customer’s behavior online?
Neylon: I have several. As a hosting provider we have a certain “duty of care”, but we can’t police our customers. We have to deal with a lot of issues involving security, like DDOS attacks, defacements and general nastiness.
At a more philosophical level I am concerned by a lot of what I see. Many small businesses are using Facebook and other social networks as their primary route to market, which is dangerous. Facebook et al don’t care about individual users.
Zuckerberg might make big statements but they’re a publicly traded company so they have to look after their investors. Investors = revenue = money and the users are the product. Ideally I would really like to see users, particularly businesses host their content on their own domain name and website.
I also worry about customers’ security. People often don’t care until it is too late, i.e. they’ve already been hacked. Most users have been socially engineered to put themselves at risk and it is a very difficult set of behaviors to correct.
.ME: How can Internet users avoid putting themselves at risk? What are the basic things you think people should be doing?
Neylon: There are multiple things to consider. For instance, data being leaked across social media is a huge problem. A friend was seriously injured in a car accident a few months ago and she’s so afraid that the driver who hit her might come looking for her that she’s renamed her social media profiles. I also see a lot of people who don’t realize that the social stuff isn’t just a game. What people need to know is that there’s a huge amount of data being collected there and it can be abused and it can come back to haunt you. I recommend being careful of your identity. Think of the Internet, as your permanent record. Everything on the Internet lives forever. There is literally a record of everything that has ever been committed to the medium. Please keep that in mind when posting updates, photos, angry rants, etc.
Passwords are of course a BIG issue. People re-use the same password across multiple sites or simply use really weak passwords. Remembering the logins for so many services these days is a challenge, so it’s understandable why people take the easy route. I advocate a good tool like Last Pass.
Another thing, and this is purely from a hosting perspective: if you own a car you get it serviced, change the oil, etc. If your personal site is running WordPress or any other CMS you need to do the same thing. Keep the damn thing up to date. If you don’t it’ll get hacked and that could be very embarrassing.