Facebook, Privacy, and Social Norms

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In July 2010, Pew Research Center released a report
on the online habits of Millennials. The experts involved in the study, who
were mostly academics and leaders at companies like Google and Microsoft,
concluded that social networking will only grow in importance despite privacy
concerns. In particular, many argued that sites like Facebook had created new
social norms around which the barriers
between “public” and “private” information were being recast
. The study
echoed a controversial statement by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg made
earlier in 2010–that, among young people, privacy
is no longer a “social norm.”

That argument may be a
little harder to make today. In addition to debates over Facebook privacy
settings, over the past several weeks, controversies have erupted in a number
of states over employers
and schools asking for Facebook passwords
from applicants, employees, and
students. And while everyone seems to agree that those employers are
overstepping their bounds, actually doing something about it is tougher than
you might think.

For one thing, legislation is woefully outdated,
says the Electronic
Privacy Information
, or EPIC. The
closest thing to a law protecting online privacy is the Electronic
Communications Privacy Act, which was passed in 1986–a good 10 years before
widespread Internet use, not to mention smartphones and other new media. So
most of the law’s provisions apply only to landline phones and physically
stored data, rather than the smartphones, social media, and “cloud” storage
that have become such a large part of 21st century life. For
something like email, the rules are complex and cumbersome, reflecting an early
understanding of the technology, says the Center
for Democracy and Technology
. If you happen to store your email on a home
computer, it is fully protected and requires a warrant to be searched. But if
you use a cloud computing service (say, Gmail), anything you store online can be
accessed without a warrant
. That includes webmail, photo sharing sites like
Flickr, spreadsheets and documents on Google Docs–basically, much of what now makes
up many people’s personal and professional lives.

The rules for social
networking sites are even more complicated. While law enforcement generally needs
a search warrant to access a suspect’s social network account, they can do so without
the knowledge of the suspect
, reports GOOD.
Facebook actually seems to be alone on this policy, as Twitter and Google have
their own rules about notifying their users of law enforcement action. In fact,
Twitter had to fight for its notification rule against a federal court ruling
in Virginia. And,
according to EPIC, at the same time, the Department of Homeland Security has an
ongoing program of setting
up fictitious user accounts
on Facebook and Twitter to follow suspects’
posts (also without their knowledge). 

Whether or not the DHS
program is legal or constitutional is not all that clear. Without more relevant
legislation, no one really knows where to draw the line–high courts being no
exception. In 2010, the Supreme Court heard two cases on email privacy, and both
times, they chose
not to address constitutional privacy issues
, reports the National Legal Research Group. Wrote
Anthony Kennedy in the first case’s majority opinion: “The judiciary risks
error by elaborating too fully on the Fourth Amendment implications of emerging
technology before its role in society has become clear.” The implication
apparently being that until innovation stops and lets us take a breather, we
should be careful about fleshing anything out too much.  

To be fair, Congress has
(half-heartedly) taken up some of these issues. Late last month, Democratic
Congressman Ed Perlmutter proposed an amendment to the FCC Process Reform Act
called “Mind Your Own Business on Passwords,” says The Atlantic. While the
amendment–which was almost immediately voted down–did not address government
snooping, it would
have prohibited employers from asking for workers’ passwords
on sites like
Facebook. The strange reality is that, because of the vote and Facebook’s
own reaction
to the controversy, the social networking site now has
stronger privacy rules than the U.S. government–at least when it comes to
password protection.        

That fact should be pretty
alarming. But if we go back to Zuckerburg’s “social norm” argument, it does
make some sense. Because technology moves so quickly, and because it has such a
big influence over our lives, it’s easy to simply accept new customs and rules
without seriously thinking about their impact. The Facebook password cases are
unique because they don’t involve government agencies or third parties breaking
and entering to access private data. Rather, they involve users willingly
giving up their privacy when pressured by people in positions of power.

The real danger here is
that social media are still very new, so if a practice like that became more
accepted, it could be difficult to undo. Laws and court rulings can be
repealed or overturned, but social norms can be much more permanent. Challenging
them might mean rethinking our place in the brave new interconnected

Sources: Pew
Research Center
, The
, Electronic Privacy
Information Center,
for Democracy and Technology
Legal Research Group
, The
, Tech

Image by rpongsaj,
licensed under Creative

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