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Category: Social Network Websites

Some Brilliant Thoughts on Social Media

The LSE has a consistently illuminating podcast series, but Nick Couldry’s recent lecture really raised the bar. He seamlessly integrates cutting edge media theory into a comprehensive critique of social media’s role in shaping events for us. I was also happy to hear him praise the work of two American scholars I particularly admire: former Co-Op guest blogger Joseph Turow (whose Daily You was described as one of the most influential books of the past decade in media studies), and Julie Cohen (whose Configuring the Networked Self was featured in a symposium here).

I plan on posting some excerpts if I can find a transcript, or a published version of the talk. In the meantime, some more brilliant thoughts on social media, this time from Ian Bogost:

For those of us lucky enough to be employed, we’re really hyperemployed—committed to our usual jobs and many other jobs as well. . . . Hyperemployment offers a subtly different way to characterize all the tiny effort we contribute to Facebook and Instagram and the like. It’s not just that we’ve been duped into contributing free value to technology companies (although that’s also true), but that we’ve tacitly agreed to work unpaid jobs for all these companies. . . . We do tiny bits of work for Google, for Tumblr, for Twitter, all day and every day.

Today, everyone’s a hustler. But now we’re not even just hustling for ourselves or our bosses, but for so many other, unseen bosses. For accounts payable and for marketing; for the Girl Scouts and the Youth Choir; for Facebook and for Google; for our friends via their Kickstarters and their Etsy shops; for Twitter, which just converted years of tiny, aggregated work acts into $78 of fungible value per user.

And perhaps also for the NSA. As participants in 2011′s Digital Labor conference gear up for a reprise, I’m sure we’ll be discussing these ideas.

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Employers and Schools that Demand Account Passwords and the Future of Cloud Privacy

Passwords 01In 2012, the media erupted with news about employers demanding employees provide them with their social media passwords so the employers could access their accounts. This news took many people by surprise, and it set off a firestorm of public outrage. It even sparked a significant legislative response in the states.

I thought that the practice of demanding passwords was so outrageous that it couldn’t be very common. What kind of company or organization would actually do this? I thought it was a fringe practice done by a few small companies without much awareness of privacy law.

But Bradley Shear, an attorney who has focused extensively on the issue, opened my eyes to the fact that the practice is much more prevalent than I had imagined, and it is an issue that has very important implications as we move more of our personal data to the Cloud.

The Widespread Hunger for Access

Employers are not the only ones demanding social media passwords – schools are doing so too, especially athletic departments in higher education, many of which engage in extensive monitoring of the online activities of student athletes. Some require students to turn over passwords, install special software and apps, or friend coaches on Facebook and other sites. According to an article in USA Today: “As a condition of participating in sports, the schools require athletes to agree to monitoring software being placed on their social media accounts. This software emails alerts to coaches whenever athletes use a word that could embarrass the student, the university or tarnish their images on services such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and MySpace.”

Not only are colleges and universities engaging in the practice, but K-12 schools are doing so as well. A MSNBC article discusses the case of a parent’s outrage over school officials demanding access to a 13-year old girl’s Facebook account. According to the mother, “The whole family is exposed in this. . . . Some families communicate through Facebook. What if her aunt was going through a divorce or had an illness? And now there’s these anonymous people reading through this information.”

In addition to private sector employers and schools, public sector employers such as state government agencies are demanding access to online accounts. According to another MSNBC article: “In Maryland, job seekers applying to the state’s Department of Corrections have been asked during interviews to log into their accounts and let an interviewer watch while the potential employee clicks through posts, friends, photos and anything else that might be found behind the privacy wall.”

Read More

Privacy & Information Monopolies

First Monday recently published an issue on social media monopolies. These lines from the introduction by Korinna Patelis and Pavlos Hatzopolous are particularly provocative:

A large part of existing critical thinking on social media has been obsessed with the concept of privacy. . . . Reading through a number of volumes and texts dedicated to the problematic of privacy in social networking one gets the feeling that if the so called “privacy issues” were resolved social media would be radically democratized. Instead of adopting a static view of the concept . . . of “privacy”, critical thinking needs to investigate how the private/public dichotomy is potentially reconfigured in social media networking, and [the] new forms of collectivity that can emerge . . . .

I can even see a way in which privacy rights do not merely displace, but actively work against, egalitarian objectives. Stipulate a population with Group A, which is relatively prosperous and has the time and money to hire agents to use notice-and-consent privacy provisions to its advantage (i.e., figuring out exactly how to disclose information to put its members in the best light possible). Meanwhile, most of Group B is too busy working several jobs to use contracts, law, or agents to its advantage in that way. We should not be surprised if Group A leverages its mastery of privacy law to enhance its position relative to Group B.

Better regulation would restrict use of data, rather than “empower” users (with vastly different levels of power) to restrict collection of data. As data scientist Cathy O’Neil observes:
Read More

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Gamification – Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter’s new book

Gamification? Is that a word? Why yes it is, and Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter want to tell us what it means. Better yet, they want to tell us how it works in their new book For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business (Wharton Press). The authors get into many issues starting with a refreshing admission that the term is clunky but nonetheless captures a simple, powerful idea: one can use game concepts in non-game contexts and achieve certain results that might be missed. As they are careful to point out, this is not game theory. This is using insights from games, yes video games and the like, to structure how we interact with a problem or goal. I have questions about how well the approach will work and potential downsides (I am after all a law professor). Yet, the authors explore cases where the idea has worked, and they address concerns about where the approach can fail. I must admit I have only an excerpt so far. But it sets out the project while acknowledging possible objections that popped to mind quite well. In short, I want to read the rest. Luckily the Wharton link above or if you prefer Amazon Kindle are both quite reasonably priced. (Amazon is less expensive).

If you wonder about games, play games, and maybe have thought what is with all this badging, point accumulation, leader board stuff at work (which I did while I was at Google), this book looks to be a must read. And if you have not encountered these changes, I think you will. So reading the book may put you ahead of the group in understanding what management or companies are doing to you. The book also sets out cases and how the process works, so it may give you ideas about how to use games to help your endeavor and impress your manager. For the law folks out there, I think this area raises questions about behavioral economics and organizations that will lay ahead. In short, the authors have a tight, clear book that captures the essence of a movement. That alone merits a hearty well done.

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Banning Forced Disclosure of Social Network Passwords and the Polygraph Precedent

The Maryland General Assembly has just become the first state legislature to vote to ban employers’ from requiring employees to reveal their Facebook or other social network passwords.  Other states are considering similar bills, and Senators Schumer and Blumenthal are pushing the idea in Congress.

As often happens in privacy debates, there are concerns from industry that well-intentioned laws will have dire consequences — Really Dangerous People might get into positions of trust, so we need to permit employers to force their employees to open up their Facebook accounts to their bosses.

Also, as often happens in privacy debates, people breathlessly debate the issue as though it is completely new and unprecedented.

We do have a precedent, however.  In 1988, Congress enacted the Employee Polygraph Protection Act  (EPPA).  The EPPA says that employers don’t get to know everything an employee is thinking.  Polygraphs are flat-out banned in almost all employment settings.  The law was signed by President Reagan, after Secretary of State George Shultz threatened to resign rather than take one.

The idea behind the EPPA and the new Maryland bill are similar — employees have a private realm where they can think and be a person, outside of the surveillance of the employer.  Imagine a polygraph if your boss asked what you really thought about him/her.  Imagine your social networking activities if your boss got to read your private messages and impromptu thoughts.

For private sector employers, the EPPA has quite narrow exceptions, such as for counter-intelligence, armored car personnel, and employees who are suspected of causing economic loss.  That list of exceptions can be a useful baseline to consider for social network passwords.

In summary — longstanding and bipartisan support to block this sort of intrusion into employees’ private lives.  The social networks themselves support this ban on having employers require the passwords.  I think we should, too.

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Pakistan Scrubs the Net

Pakistan, which has long censored the Internet, has decided to upgrade its cybersieves. And, like all good bureaucracies, the government has put the initiative out for bid. According to the New York Times, Pakistan wants to spend $10 million on a system that can block up to 50 million URLs concurrently, with minimal effect on network speed. (That’s a lot of Web pages.) Internet censorship is on the march worldwide (and the U.S. is no exception). There are at least three interesting things about Pakistan’s move:

First, the country’s openness about its censorial goals is admirable. Pakistan is informing its citizens, along with the rest of us, that it wants to bowdlerize the Net. And, it is attempting to do so in a way that is more uniform than under its current system, where filtering varies by ISP. I don’t necessarily agree with Pakistan’s choice, but I do like that the country is straightforward with its citizens, who have begun to respond.

Second, the California-based filtering company Websense announced that it will not bid on the contract. That’s fascinating – a tech firm has decided that the public relations damage from helping Pakistan censor the Net is greater than the $10M in revenue it could gain. (Websense argues, of course, that its decision is a principled one. If you believe that, you are probably a member of the Ryan Braun Clean Competition fan club.)

Finally, the state is somewhat vague about what it will censor: it points to pornography, blasphemy, and material that affects national security. The last part is particularly worrisome: the national security trump card is a potent force after 9/11 and its concomitant fallout in Pakistan’s neighborhood, and censorship based on it tends to be secret. There is also real risk that national security interests = interests of the current government. America has an unpleasant history of censoring political dissent based on security worries, and Pakistan is no different.

I’ll be fascinated to see which companies take up Pakistan’s offer to propose…

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

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Ubiquitous Infringement

Lifehacker‘s Adam Dachis has a great article on how users can deal with a world in which they infringe copyright constantly, both deliberately and inadvertently. (Disclaimer alert: I talked with Adam about the piece.) It’s a practical guide to a strict liability regime – no intent / knowledge requirement for direct infringement – that operates not as a coherent body of law, but as a series of reified bargains among stakeholders. And props to Adam for the Downfall reference! I couldn’t get by without the mockery of the iPhone or SOPA that it makes possible…

Cross-posted to Info/Law.

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Cyberbullying and the Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys

(This post is based on a talk I gave at the Seton Hall Legislative Journal’s symposium on Bullying and the Social Media Generation. Many thanks to Frank Pasquale, Marisa Hourdajian, and Michelle Newton for the invitation, and to Jane Yakowitz and Will Creeley for a great discussion!)

Introduction

New Jersey enacted the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (ABBR) in 2011, in part as a response to the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi at Rutgers University. It is routinely lauded as the country’s broadest, most inclusive, and strongest anti-bullying law. That is not entirely a compliment. In this post, I make two core claims. First, the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights has several aspects that are problematic from a First Amendment perspective – in particular, the overbreadth of its definition of prohibited conduct, the enforcement discretion afforded school personnel, and the risk of impingement upon religious and political freedoms. I argue that the legislation departs from established precedent on disruptions of the educational environment by regulating horizontal relations between students rather than vertical relations between students and the school as an institution / environment. Second, I believe we should be cautious about statutory regimes that enable government actors to sanction speech based on content. I suggest that it is difficult to distinguish, on a principled basis, between bullying (which is bad) and social sanctions that enforce norms (which are good). Moreover, anti-bullying laws risk displacing effective informal measures that emerge from peer production. Read More

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Stanford Law Review Online: The Privacy Paradox 2012 Symposium Issue

Stanford Law Review

Our 2012 Symposium Issue, The Privacy Paradox: Privacy and Its Conflicting Values, is now available online:

Essays

The text of Chief Judge Alex Kozinski’s keynote is forthcoming.

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Tempest in Tempe: First Amendment in the Desert

In the spirit of the excellent colloquy here about Marvin’s thinking on First Amendment architectures, I bring up this news item: Arizona State University blocked both Web access to, and e-mail from, the change.org Web site. ASU students had begun a petition demanding that the university reduce tuition. The university essentially made three claims as to why it did so (below, in order of increasing stupidity):

  1. It was a technical mistake;
  2. Change.org was spamming ASU; and
  3. ASU needs to “protect the use of our limited and valuable network resources for legitimate academic, research and administrative uses.”

#1 and #2 run together. If spam is the problem, you don’t need to block access to the Web site. However, if you are concerned that students are going to read the petition, and sign it, you do need to block access to the Web site.

For #2, sorry, ASU, this isn’t spam. Spam is unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail. Change.org is, allegedly, sending unsolicited political e-mail. And that’s protected by the First Amendment – see, for example, the Virginia Supreme Court’s analysis of that state’s anti-spam law that covered political messages. Potential political spammers have a sharp disincentive to fill recipient’s inboxes – it’s a sure-fire way to annoy them into opposing your position.

For #3, ASU doesn’t get to determine what academic and research uses are “legitimate.” If they throttle P2P apps, that’s fine. If they limit file sizes for attachments, no problem. But deciding that the message from Change.org is not “legitimate” is classic, and unconstitutional, viewpoint discrimination.

This looks like censorship. I think it’s more likely to be stupidity: someone in ASU’s IT department decided to block these messages as spam, and to filter outbound Web requests to the site contained within those messages. But: with great power over the network comes great responsibility. Well-intentioned constitutional violations are still unlawful. It would also help if ASU’s spokesperson simply admitted the mistake rather than engaging in idiotic justification.

As I mention in Orwell’s Armchair, public actors are increasingly important sources of Internet access. But when ASU and other public universities take on the role of ISP, they need to remember that they are not AOL: their technical decisions are constrained not merely by tech resources, but by our commitment to free speech. Let’s hope the Sun Devils cool off on the filtering…

Cross-posted at Info/Law.