WhitePages.com grapples with privacy in a Web 2.0 world

Turns out giving people more control over their virtual selves isn't simple

WhitePages.com does exactly what you'd expect from the name -- it tries to provide phone-book-style listings for both the U.S. and Canada. Of course, there's nothing new about that, so WhitePages.com tries to do an especially thorough job. The company claims that at the end of 2007, it had 180 million U.S. adults, about 80% of the population, in its records.

As Web 2.0, social networking and a changing idea of personal privacy have come to the fore, WhitePages.com has also started to ask itself how it might offer users more control over their information while providing more and different kinds of information. Forward-thinking -- maybe even noble -- but as experience is showing, far easier said than done.

Specifically, WhitePages.com founder and CEO Alex Algard has said that the company would start adding features to let people edit or hide portions of their directory information. At the same time early this year, the company promised that it would work on a way to let people send text messages or e-mails using the directory information but without revealing their information -- something along the lines of a social networking site such as LinkedIn or Facebook.

For example, let's say you were looking for your old high school girlfriend, and she's listed in WhitePages.com's records but chooses to keep her information hidden. With the system Algard envisions, you could send her a note via WhitePages.com, and she could then decide whether to get back in touch with you or call the police because you're still stalking her after all these years.

How will WhitePages.com do it? Thereby hangs the tale, as the site struggles -- as so many are doing now -- to corral multiple systems and layered goals while moving on the Web 2.0 front. As Bobby Cox, senior privacy manager at WhitePages.com, said, "We are making great strides in overcoming this challenge, but aren't 100% there yet."

Where they're calling from

What WhitePages.com has now, according to Cox, is "the easiest and most comprehensive removal process in the industry. The process is completely self-serve and prevents information which a user has requested us to remove from appearing on any of our network of sites." Although some other directory sites -- 411.com, for example -- make it easy for users to remove themselves from their listings, others, such as MetaCrawler, Numberway and PeopleData, make it as difficult to leave as the Eagle's "Hotel California," where "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave."

Cox continued, "However, we believe that users should have even greater control over the display of their information. Too many sites and services require users to fill out forms, submit letters or jump through burdensome hoops just to remove or update some piece of personal information. We are developing products and services that will allow users to remove, update or edit any piece of their information."

And rather than decide for itself what information should or shouldn't be private -- thorny territory, since cultural and even generational shifts change the public's ideas on what information is public, private, personal or sensitive -- WhitePages.com decided to let you choose what you'd like to keep to yourself or to show to the world.

"Unfortunately, building this system is not as easy as we would like," added Cox. "Not only do we publish hundreds of millions of listings every month, we believe that only you should be able to change or edit your listing. The system we are working overtime to provide includes an authentication solution which would enable customers to claim their published contact information."

Once the authentication system has been thoroughly tested and proven, according to plans, people will be able to change their listings in close to real time. (Of course, WhitePages.com is also considering having humans as a last-ditch defense in case someone swipes your identity and gets up to mischief.)

Since the project's inception, the company has decided to try to add some social networking functionality to the site. After all, there's a case to be made that directory services and social networks are all about the same thing: getting people together.

As explained on a developer blog posting by Scott Ruthfield, WhitePages.com's vice president of engineering and technology, "We believe that contact information is a core building block of the Internet experience, that connecting to the people you care about is a fundamental human need, and that keeping core contact information behind pay or log-in walls so that people can't manage their offline social network without using your online social network makes it harder for everyone -- ordinary people and developers alike."

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