Privacy on the Web

“Almost all arguments about student privacy, whether those calling for more restrictions or fewer, fail to give students themselves a voice, let alone some assistance in deciding what to share online.”

Hack Education author Audrey Watters highlights an issue that everyone using technology in the classroom or to share their work online has to grapple with. When we think about it abstractly, it’s easy to recognize that privacy is very important. But when it comes to online spaces, privacy is sometimes unwittingly sacrificed or overlooked. In educational settings, it’s not always explored fully in a way that engages students, listens to their concerns, and informs them of their rights. We are all responsible for protecting our own privacy. This post is intended to explore the topic more deeply and give some guidance that will hopefully help you decide the boundaries of what you are comfortable with sharing.

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The distinctions between public and private spaces are often blurred on the web. The nature of how websites are constructed means that privacy settings can add multiple layers of security that hide or show different things to different people. When you first create them, most sites will automatically be set to a public privacy setting, meaning everyone can see what’s on it. You are responsible for adjusting these settings for your own needs.

On a more personal level, how can we use privacy settings to enhance our work? It might be helpful to reframe this distinction as “thought space” vs “public space”. We can use privacy features to help us draft our ideas in a contained environment just for ourselves and our collaborators, before sending them out into the public arena where they will interact with the opinions of the greater world.

thought-1014406_960_720Before sharing anything on the web, think about whether it’s something you would mind sharing in real life. Consider carefully before revealing identifying information, like usernames, passwords, your real name, addresses, and phone numbers. Someone could use even a small piece of information like this to find more about you via a reverse search. If you want to keep your personal information from being entered into public, searchable record (i.e. general web search results), you may want to avoid filling out forms that require those details or posting them anywhere online.

SITES dot and MiddCreate Domains

Middlebury hosts two WordPress based platforms, SITES dot MIIS and SITES dot Middlebury, which are available for you to create content on. MiddCreate provides our community members with an entire domain of their own, and is hosted through Reclaim Hosting, a company that offers a strict privacy policy. It was reviewed and approved as our vendor by the Information and Technology Services group (ITS) at Middlebury. Reclaim Hosting doesn’t make any intellectual property claims about what you host on your MiddCreate domain (unless you post something they created or wrote).

Some people may wonder how the US Department of Education’s Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is implicated in projects like these. FERPA only requires that student records not be public unless a student gives permission, so ultimately you have control of how much information is made available.

What this means is that anything you make on SITES dot MIIS, SITES dot Middlebury, or MiddCreate can only be made public with your permission or by your own choice. You have full agency to control the level of privacy you want to set for your websites. If you’re creating something for a class assignment, you will probably have to find a way to allow your professor to access it for grading purposes. However, an instructor cannot force you to use identifying personal information or share your content without your consent.

WordPress Privacy Settings

WordPress powers not only SITES dot MIIS and SITES dot Middlebury, but is also one of the most popular applications on MiddCreate. Almost 26% of sites on the internet use WordPress, so it’s very useful to familiarize yourself with the privacy options it offers. It’s important to understand what these option mean and how your site will be affected by any changes you make.

Content Visibility

When you create a post you can save it as a draft instead of publishing it right away. Drafts are only visible to people who have login access to the Dashboard of your WordPress site. Once you publish a post or page, you can customize its visibility under the “Publish” sidebar in the editor. You have three visibility options:
  • Public – The page will be visible to everyone.
  • Protected – The page is protected with a password you set. WordPress will prompt you for the password on your initial visit to a protected page, and only people who have the password can view a protected page. You can password protect post-by-post, or entire areas of your site by using a plugin.
  • Private – Pages are only visible to Editors and Administrators*. Private pages are not visible in the Reader, feeds, or in any search. A page can be private without being password protected.

* Learn more about WordPress user roles and permissions in this resource from WP Beginner.

Private Site

If you’d like to make your entire website private, you’ll need to adjust your general privacy settings. They can be found under Settings > General on the left-hand sidebar in the Dashboard.
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Search Engine Visibility Options

You can also choose whether you want your site to show up in search engine results. In WordPress, these options can be found under Settings > Reading > Search Engine Visibility.
  • Allow search engines to index this site. – This is the setting used by most blogs. It allows everyone to read your site and enables it to be included in search engine results and other content sites.
  • Ask search engines not to index this site. – If you want all human visitors to be able to read your blog, but want to block web crawlers for search engines, this is the setting for you.

** Please note that these options cannot force search engines to not search your site at all.

Knowing how to manage your identity and information online is a critical part of developing digital literacy. Whether on social media, as part of your academic work, or in your everyday web browsing, privacy is something we all have to think carefully about in order to discover what our comfort level is and how much we are willing to share with the world. You have the right to choose what amount of engagement is most appropriate for you, and protect yourself and your information accordingly.

I hope this article has provided a useful framework for thinking about privacy, but if you have any further concerns or questions, feel free to drop by the DLC for more advice!


Additional Resources

Want to take control of what people find about you online? Check out our web presence resources.

Concerned about malware/spyware and fending off invasive hacks? Learn more about web security.