Ars Technica and Geekwire have both covered the story about NextDoor temporarily booting me off their service because I published some of the questions their members asked police chief Kathleen O’Toole in what was billed as a public forum on the site. (NextDoor is an official “partner” with the City of Seattle; I have filed records requests to find out more about what that entails.) In an email, a NextDoor representative told me that posts from O’Toole herself were public, but that the questions citizens asked her during this town hall, which SPD explicitly billed as a public forum, were private and proprietary. NextDoor restored my service after I wrote about their decision to kick me off for allegedly violating their terms of service.
In the case of communications with public officials, at least, those terms of service bump up against state law. The state’s public records act makes all communications with city officials like the police chief a matter of public record, so NextDoor was incorrect when they said those records aren’t public; they are. However, their suspension of my account raises a more fundamental question of whether the tens of thousands of people who share information and opinions on NextDoor have a reasonable expectation that everything they say there will stay there.
NextDoor is enforcing its terms of service as if the agreement not to share information contained therein is as ironclad as attorney-client privilege: Any leaks must be tracked and punished. However, they’re simultaneously pretty lax about punishing people who publish private information about public officials, such as their home addresses; as I write this, city council member Mike O’Brien’s home address has been public on the site for several days, and some NextDoor denizens are agitating for homeowners to set up camp in front of his house. And they’re still partners with the city, which posts information about public meetings, service opportunities, and criminal activity on the site.
So Nextdoor wants to have it both ways: To be a “partner” with cities and conduit for city officials to share information with and solicit feedback from residents, and to be a private social media app where neighborhood residents can say things to each other that they wouldn’t want to say in a public forum. I maintain it can’t be both, and that it shouldn’t be either.