Science

The Opt Out: 10 rules for better internet etiquette

You are more than a data point. The Opt Out is here to help you take your privacy back.

THE INTERNET is vast, and we all have our own ideas about how we want to interact with it: Some livestream their every move, while others keep their daily activities to themselves. This would be perfectly fine if we all lived on our own isolated virtual islands, but we most definitely don’t.

When we share something about ourselves online, we’re also revealing details about those around us—just ask the victims of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, or the incredibly private people who’ve had their real identities revealed by TikTok sleuths. It’s beyond time we started looking at online privacy not as a personal decision, but as a collective issue.

To keep this conversation going, the Opt Out has created a code of conduct everyone could abide by. Of course, we can’t actually control what you do online, but we can help you understand that your actions on the internet have offline consequences, often for people other than you. 

So read these rules, take what applies to your life, and share it with your friends. The more people think about how everyone’s data and personal information is connected via the web, the more attainable privacy will be for all of us. 

Consent is crucial to respecting people’s boundaries. Before you share a photo, a video, a personal story, or anything that depicts or describes someone else, ask them if they’re comfortable with you posting it. 

This includes images in which they’re featured prominently, as well as those where they’re visible only in the background, so be careful when you pan your camera—you might be unwittingly outing a secret relationship people have been speculating about for months. But it’s not only about images: You should also ask for permission when sharing written posts that include a person’s name or details that might identify them. You’ll want to be especially careful with information people might use to contact the person mentioned in your post, like their email address, phone number, location, and place of employment. You don’t want to inadvertently help stalkers get closer to their victims.  

[Related on PopSci+: When you should and shouldn’t accept a website’s cookies]

Content involving children is particularly sensitive. If you’re not the parent or guardian, make sure you ask the person who is before you hit publish. Even if they agree, consider hiding the kids’ faces as much as possible. 

Finally, just don’t post about someone who’s intoxicated, asleep, unconscious, or unable to provide clear consent. In fact, don’t take any pictures or videos of them at all—that’s just creepy.

2. Think carefully about filming or recording random people on the street

Listen, we agree with you: It’s not OK to be mean to people. And as much as you might enjoy the occasional Karen video, you should know that filming people like that is also not OK.

There can be truly good intentions behind such footage, and videos of rude people have probably made some viewers reconsider how they treat others. But once a video is online, you lose control over it. TikTok users have built followings by finding anyone they believe deserves comeuppance and calling their employer to get them fired or reprimanded. Others go even further and dox them, resulting in disproportionate consequences for them and their loved ones, including stalking, harassment, and even assault. Social media rarely makes the distinction between a truly awful person and someone who’s just making a huge mistake. 

That said, there are exceptions. Sometimes whipping out your phone and hitting record could help bring justice to a victim of assault, a hit-and-run, or even murder. Use your judgment to gauge whether you’re in an extreme situation like that and stop to think about the best way you can help—it may be filming at your own personal risk, but it may also be calling 911 or attracting the attention of other bystanders. 

And if you choose to hit that red square on your screen, you’ll have to figure out what to do with the video once you have it. In the great majority of cases, you shouldn’t publish it to social media. The harm you cause when the video leaves your control may be magnitudes greater than whatever clout, following, or emotional boost you gained by posting it. The rare exceptions include when you want to help someone but can’t contact them because they were arrested or removed in an ambulance. Even then, you may want to take some time to see if you can track them down and hand the material over personally.

Keep in mind that even in a court of law, your footage will take on a life of its own once it leaves your hands. Despite your best intentions, your video may not have the effect or result you intended it to.  

3. Don’t share one-to-one messages

As a general rule, treat all texts, photos, and videos you get through one-on-one chats and private message groups with the same care an international spy treats confidential orders from their handler. The people sending those messages meant for you alone to see them, so you shouldn’t send or show them to anybody else. The best example of this is nudes: If you get one, you can save or delete it, but that’s all.

4. Share contact information only when it’s consensual or public

A lot of people have their contact information on websites or their social media accounts. For example, you can email a PopSci writer by clicking the letter icon in their bio at the bottom of a story. This allows readers to send us comments and questions.

But that doesn’t mean other contact information is also public. If you need to disclose someone’s contact information, share only what’s publicly available on their official channels. If they have none listed, always ask them before you share their contact information: Tell them what you plan on sharing and with whom, and proceed only once they say they’re OK with it.  

5. Avoid revealing more information than you need to 

Sometimes we share more information than we think we’re sharing. Without realizing it, your long-awaited unboxing might have given all your followers your home address, and an innocent photo with your colleagues taken during lunch might have revealed your place of employment just because one person forgot to take off their badge.  

This is bad enough when it comes to your own information, let alone when it involves others. So be careful with what you share and look out for details about yourself and the people around you that reveal more than you’d like. 

Be careful with pictures featuring packing labels, official documents, license plates, and boarding passes—if you must share them, blur or cover sensitive information. Don’t forget the background—you’d be amazed at how much you can learn about someone by pausing a video and peeking at their corkboard. You should also take a good look at screenshots before posting, as they may include location data or even a rogue notification you didn’t notice popped up at just the wrong time. When taking photos near windows or outside, pay attention to landmarks, street signs, and anything else that might make your location evident. If you want to go the extra mile, consider erasing the metadata from image files before posting or sharing them online.

Finally, mind the words you use and avoid those that describe a direct affiliation with someone. Going back to that lunch with your colleagues, a sweet post about how much you like them might reveal a lot more than your appreciation for them. Just calling them colleagues reveals everyone’s place of employment (remember that one who didn’t take off their badge?) and if you mention how happy they’ve all made you for the past three years, viewers now have an approximate period of employment. It might not be a lot of information, but it accumulates with every post. 

6. It’s OK not to share your passwords with your partner. It’s also OK if you do. 

You have the right to privacy, and you don’t owe your partner unlimited access to your accounts. Lots of couples share their credentials for the sake of transparency and practicality, but that’s not necessarily a sign of a good and healthy relationship.

[Related on PopSci+: Stop choosing bad passwords, already]

Whether you share your passwords and passcodes with your significant other is your decision and yours alone. If you feel comfortable doing it and think it might make the relationship better, go for it. Just know that you should be able to keep your own space and say no if your partner asks you to open that door.

7. You’re the only one responsible for setting your boundaries

You may have someone in your life who’s very much online—the one who takes a picture of everything and posts multiple updates on social media throughout the day. So the next time you go out with this person and they whip out their phone to take a group picture, don’t just hide from the lens—take some time to have a conversation about what you’re OK with when it comes to being featured in someone else’s online posts. 

They may not understand or agree with your stance at first, and you might have to have the same conversation more than once. But you cannot expect to be comfortable going out with them if they don’t know what you want. Setting boundaries will make it easier for your friend to respect your needs and for you to enforce them. 

8.  Post about what you’re doing but not whom you’re with 

We understand if you don’t feel like having a conversation about online privacy as your food is making its way to your table. It’s a bit boring and certainly not the reason you and your friends got together. So if you haven’t had a conversation about expectations and boundaries when it comes to social presence, you should feel free to post about whatever you’re doing—just as long as you don’t disclose whom you are with.  

The idea is to include only you, the one person definitely providing consent to appear on social media. If someone else also consents, you may include them as well, but be mindful of those who opt out—don’t include them in group photos, and don’t tag or mention them. Be careful to leave out any identifying details, such as tattoos, cars, or anything that might hint at whom you’re out and about with.

Some people may be comfortable with appearing in your posts but not with you including a link to their social media account or accounts. Again, just ask them what they feel comfortable with. 

This rule also applies to other situations like contests, promotions, friends’ posts, and even using hashtags. Most social media platforms group hashtags and generally make identically tagged content easily accessible to people who may or may not be directly connected to us. For someone who wants to keep to themselves, this can be an unwanted reservoir of information about them.

Your friend’s priorities regarding privacy may have changed since the last time you saw them. Even if they frequently post to Instagram and you think they’ll have no problem with you sharing a photo, don’t assume, and always ask them before you post. 

Tell them what you plan to write as a caption, if you’re planning to mention them, and make them feel comfortable by showing them the picture or post before hitting publish. Give them veto power and options.

And if you’re going to make assumptions about how someone feels about popping up on your timeline, it’s always a good idea to err on the side of caution. Assume the person beside you is private and doesn’t want anything about them online, until you learn otherwise. 

Read more PopSci+ stories.