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Weekly #3: Right to Privacy on the Social Web

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I have several thoughts floating around in my head, all seemingly connected to this assignment, so bear with me…

Post #3 is in response to the following question: Do we need a Bill of Rights for the social web?

I need definitions before I can answer this.

First, what is the social web? “The social web can be described as people interlinked and interacting with engaging content in a conversational and participatory manner via the Internet.” Thank you very much, Wikipedia. I think about this in terms of activity on social platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia and so on.

Second, a Bill of Rights to what? I get the sense that Joseph Smarr and Co. were advocating for the right to greater usability of the social web. They weren’t outlining ways that users are to be protected on the social web. They were talking about convenience for users via open data sharing, and they were doing it under the guise of property, ownership and control. Because if the social web “just works for users,” as Smarr so desires, then it is equally as simple for it to “just work” for marketers when they need to collect our data. The big selling point of this so-called user-centric Bill of Rights is that it is supposed to be beneficial (read: profitable) to those platforms willing to share users’ data. That’s fine and all, but I was hoping for a Bill of Rights more in line with the protection of the little guy from The Man.

Third, who is the “we” in need of these rights? You have to ask this because enforcement of rights is impossible without knowing the beneficiaries of them. Not that I believe enforcement can happen easily even if the “citizens” afforded these rights are clearly defined. But still, are we talking about the entire world population? Or the American population? Or perhaps just internet users? And then what level of user? Who would claim these rights if given? If you take a look at the Social Technographics Ladder in Groundswell, you have to wonder if the “inactives” even care about having rights on the social web.

The Bill of Rights put forth three years ago makes us imagine a social web where we the users own and control the information we put out there. It is attractive to us because we crave privacy in a space where “community now shades into audience” and “communication is instant, global, and nearly permanent” (Here Comes Everybody, p. 89).

My assertion that we crave privacy may seem paradoxical given the amount of personal information we disseminate and consume on social platforms. For example, today I received a text from my friend informing me that a past high school friend of ours is pregnant. How did she find out? Facebook. Of course, I immediately called her for more information:

Me: “Wait, what?!”

Friend: “I was reading my News Feed and just saw it on there! I could get a life but instead I just read about everyone else’s lives on Facebook.”

Was anything inherently wrong with this information sharing? No. Were rights violated? No. Did it feel unsettling that I learned of this major life event via my friend’s virtual stalking habits? A bit. Sure, said Pregnant Friend put up the information herself. And, yes, we are “friends” on Facebook. But we aren’t close anymore, and I don’t think she would be happy that I reacted to news of her firstborn in the same way I would to a Sarah Silverman tweet.

The point is that the social web is a giant microphone, and it is overwhelming not knowing how personal information is being consumed, reused and reacted to. It was so overwhelming to Tyler Clementi that he ended his life over it. Social platforms were integral to his tragic death. Tyler posted his suicide note on Facebook, three days after his roommate made his sexual orientation and exploits known to the world through Twitter and iChat. Now, Tyler didn’t post this information himself and it is clear that his right to privacy was grossly violated. But the concern still remains. Why worry about API tokens and data sharing when we should be thinking of the protection of our right to privacy and the serious consequences for violating that right? This excerpt from a Washington Post op-ed sums it up well:

Technology is not the villain. Humans have never needed sophisticated tools to spread malice. Word of mouth and surreptitious notes have long done the trick. But technology has exponentially enabled and emboldened the mean or thoughtless among us. It allows those with less than noble intentions to hide behind screen names or lurk from afar, distancing themselves from their human targets and the possible consequences of their actions. And the trespasses are no longer contained to a circle of friends, a school or a town but accessible to millions.

This is the stuff keeping me up at night, not whether I can log in to all of my preferred platforms with one universal ID. Bring me a Bill of Rights protecting my privacy and punishing violators of it. Or better yet, show me a SCOTUS willing to figure out privacy in the digital world using the BoR we already have, and I’ll stand up and applaud.