Thursday, May 26, 2011

Proposed California Law Tackles Social Media, Privacy Concerns

A proposed new law in California would have radical implications for Facebook and other major social media sites:
The bill, which would apply only to users in California, would prohibit sites from displaying users' home addresses or telephone numbers without their consent and would mandate services remove of any information about a user within 48 hours of the request, or face a $10,000 fine.

Under the proposed law, social networking sites would be required to have all users choose their privacy settings--explained in "plain language"--as part of the registration process. It also spells out a privacy setting that would be mandated to serve as the default on all sites and that would prohibit "the display...of any information about a registered user, other than the user's name and city of residence, without the agreement of the user."
Perhaps predictably, Facebook has already commenced lobbying against the bill, claiming it is a "serious threat" to "California consumers' choices about use of personal data." However, their argument essentially hinges on the idea that consumers of social media products won't be able to give up their privacy until after they've become familiar with the service they're using.

This seems to be an odd complaint, but from Facebook's point of view it's quite obvious: the site's growth is dependent on users being able to easily and rapidly find their friends and family on it, and if users don't enter personal information relatively early on in the signup process it becomes much less likely that they'll do so later on (since once one is a member of the site, people tend to dismiss additional requests for personal information - which is exactly why sites like Facebook ask for it up front), and thus impede Facebook's core usability.

The question, then, is whether the facility granted by being able to use Facebook (and for all that we say "sites like Facebook," we of course are really only talking about Facebook at this point, as most other social media services aren't nearly so personal-information-dependent for their use) is of more benefit, from a public policy perspective, than the privacy that one inherently must give up to use those sites effectively.

At this point, the question of Facebook's social utility is one that requires more serious debate. Facebook's use as a platform for collective action is only starting to be exploited, whether it is for political action or even modifying Facebook's design and policies thereof. On the other hand, "Facebook-stalking" has entered our lexicon for a reason: the site makes it exceptionally easy to cyber-bully people, and even to do so anonymously.

Does Facebook's "power for good" outweigh the dangers it can create with its relatively invasive standard privacy setting? Does it at least balance it enough that a law like the one proposed in California is needless? This writer is genuinely not sure; on the one hand, laws like this do seem somewhat nanny-statish, but on the other hand firmly reminding people that their privacy can be at risk when participating in social media seems to be an obvious good.

- Christopher Bird, Toronto
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