The online brain fade: connecting to the internet, disconnecting from reality

Online privacy and information protection are hot
topics in this age when smartphones are the norm and people share personal
information—a lot of it mundane—through mediums like Facebook and Twitter. And these issues hit the headlines again last week when a
hoax chain letter did the rounds on Facebook.

The letter asked you to post a
message on your Facebook wall claiming ownership of what you post on Facebook.
The message you were told to post went something like: I hereby declare my copyright
is attached to all of my personal details, illustrations, comics, paintings,
professional photos and videos, etc. . .  

Of course, the declaration is meaningless and has no

All of a Facebook user’s rights are governed by
Facebook’s terms and conditions. That is, the terms linked to the little box
that you ticked when you signed up. It’s the same box that said that you read
and agree to Facebook’s terms and conditions when you didn’t read a single

In this case the hoax was harmless. Posting the declaration
on your wall left you no better or worse off than you were before. However, it
does signal that many Facebook users have no idea what they have agreed to when
they signed up. Fortunately, Facebook’s policy is that users own and control any
content that they post. So your copyright and personal information still belong
to you—to a degree.

Internet users need to realise that what goes online
will probably stay online forever. You may own copyright in a photograph but
once it is online anyone who can see it can copy it.

For someone like a professional photographer this may
be an issue. Embedding a copyright watermark in an image can help to stop
commercial use of the image by other people. However, those photographers have
to accept that absolute control of the image is out of their hands.

An example of how things can go wrong was demonstrated
by recent images showing Prince William at work. Those images showed defence
force user names and passwords. The original images were removed from the
internet but the damage was done. Anyone who saw the images could have made
copies and used the information. In this
case the UK defence force changed the passwords. But if the information you
accidentally post is a trade secret, then the damage could be permanent.

But it is not all bad news. Images circulating on the
internet can also be great advertising. There is no doubt when something ‘goes
viral’ the value of publicity that it gets goes well beyond what anyone can pay
for. South Korean singer Psy of ‘Gangnam Style’ fame can attest to the value
of viral publicity. His song video is now the most viewed in YouTube history.
It has helped turn him from a singer only known in South Korea into a global

For most people the hoaxes that persuade people to
part with their hard earned money pose a greater risk. These include spam emails
that tell you that you are an heir to a Nigerian fortune or have won a lottery.
Of course, the catch—and there is one—is that you need to send them money
first so they can pay to release the windfall. Rest assured, if you send any
cash you won’t see it again.

And for young people their desire to post their
entire life online presents problems. It’s not unusual for a student to have a
few drinks after their exams. However, the last thing they should do—or let
anyone else to—is to put photos of them on the internet when they are
intoxicated. They might see that as funny or a way to share the good times with
absent friends. But it is common for prospective employers to search the web
for information about job applicants. Images of you drunk and half naked
running down Queen Street or Courtenay Place can damage your job prospects, unless you are applying for a job as the lead singer of a rock band.

It seems that once we connect to the internet we
disconnect our brains. We take what we find online as statements of fact. We don’t
stop to question the facts claimed or identify the source. Or we put things
online that seem funny at the time but later can be damaging to us or others.
When it comes to the internet we need to engage our brains or suffer the

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