Yesterday, with little prior notice, Police Chief O’Toole hosted an online Town Hall on Nextdoor. Erica C. Barnett “attended” the Town Hall and posted a report on the conversation.  And that’s when things got weird.Barnett posted some of the less savory comments and questions from the town hall, bringing to light the less-than-sympathetic view that many in our community have of the homeless.

NextDoor’s response was to suspend Barnett’s account. They accused her of violating their privacy policy, which states:

Respecting Your Neighbors’ Privacy. One of Nextdoor’s central tenets is that neighbors should be able to communicate privately amongst themselves. For this reason, we restrict who can access your neighborhood and take efforts to exclude non-neighbors from the conversation. For example, we don’t let public web search engines (such as Google) index member-submitted Content, except as described in this Privacy Policy. (For example, we allow web search engines to index public posts by local agency partners, snippets of aggregated or anonymized Content, and items such as Event listings that were marked “public” by the members who posted them)

Given this norm, taking information or Content shared by one neighbor member to another and sharing it outside the neighborhood(s) without authorization violates your neighbors’ expectations and is a serious breach of trust. Therefore, you may not share your account with someone else, nor should you share your neighbors’ information or any non-public Content sent through Nextdoor with anyone outside the neighborhood(s) to which the post was distributed without the author’s permission. Also, you may not gather information from Nextdoor, either manually or on an automated basis (such as through scripts, robots, crawlers or spiders). Without limiting the foregoing, it is never OK to provide your neighbors’ information from Nextdoor to third-party marketers.

Violating this provision or other aspects of the Nextdoor Member Agreement may lead to a loss of account privileges, potentially including a permanent ban from Nextdoor.

Did she violate their stated privacy policy?  Yup. No question about that.  But the issues here are the privacy policy itself and the social dynamic that it creates: that NextDoor believes it is facilitating a private conversation among hundreds of people, including public officials. That notion itself is laughable, from a practical, and legal, point of view.

In patent law, I can’t file a patent on an idea after I’ve publicly disclosed it. If I needed to run a detail by a few people and asked them to sign a non-disclosure agreement before I told them the details, the Patent Office would be fine with that.  But if I brought 500 people into an auditorium, asked them all to sign an NDA, and then told them all about my idea, then legally speaking I’ve disclosed it anyway. You can’t have a private conversation with 500 members of the public.

But what’s really bothersome here is that governments, including the City of Seattle, have been embracing Nextdoor as a useful conduit for information sharing: both pushing information out to citizens but also (as in the case of O’Toole’s town hall) gathering information back. They treat it as if it’s a public forum.

But it’s not. Demonstrably not. There is no public accountability for the conversations that happen there. There is no way to have a public conversation about whether opinions presented there are factually accurate or even whether they actually represent the views of the citizenry.

Nextdoor stringently polices who can join: you must prove that you live in a particular neighborhood before you are allowed into the forums for that area. For renters this can particularly burdensome: they mail a postcard out to you and you must use the information on it to confirm your address.

One of the side effects of this: the homeless community is completely excluded from Nextdoor. Yesterday O’Toole had an extensive discussion with Seattle citizens about homeless people, and actual homeless people couldn’t read, much less participate, in any of that discussion. Barnett tried to report on that discussion, and she got booted off Nextdoor for her efforts.

For O’Toole and other city staff to participate in Nextdoor under this regime is wholly inappropriate. City participation strengthens their site and improves their business; without it they are, as Barnett suggests, a private club. They are welcome to be a private club, but a prerequisite of the City’s participation must be transparency for all residents and for the press.

City leaders, including the City Council, must demand that Nextdoor change its policies to open up its discussions to everyone, and to allow the press to report on those discussions – at the very least those that involve public officials and government-supplied information. They should refuse to participate in any Nextdoor activities until that happens.