WhitePages.com grapples with privacy in 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 US 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 US adults, about 80 per cent 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 noble even but, as experience is showing, far easier said than done.

Specifically, founder and CEO Alex Algard has said that the company would start adding features to let people edit and/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 to call the police because you're still stalking her after all those 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 themselves what should or shouldn't be private -- thorny territory, as 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 decide 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," adds 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."

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