Law in the Internet Society
Surfing the Internet, I stumbled upon this article in which a reporter spoke with Professor Moglen on privacy issues involving Facebook, twitter, etc. Here is a link to the article that includes a transcript of the conversation.

I wanted to respond to some of Professor Moglen's comments:

Professor Moglen asserts that users are in large part a cause of the "enormous ecological disaster created by badly-designed social media now being used by people to control and exploit human beings in all sorts of ways." This oo rue in the sense that without users, social media would not function or exist. When Professor Moglen asked the reporter if she has stopped using Facebook after learning of these privacy issues, the reporter said no because so many of her friends use it and she doesn't want to stop. Professor Moglen said that this is the essence of the problem, that "the reason that this all works is that even though you know you're hurting other people, you're too selfish to stop." Some examples discussed are police agencies around the world using photographs posted on twitter and Facebook to identify individuals for whom they are looking; banks using social networking data to judge qualification for loans; that every time we post a picture or a link, we are ratting out our friends.

Professor Moglen's solution to the problem is simple, quick, and cheap. The most effective regulator of Facebook and Twitter is not the legislature, enacting laws prohibiting the selling of personal data to government's and commercial entities, but rather is us. Simply stop going on Facebook and Twitter. I agree with Professor Moglen that this will, in all likelihood, stop the privacy problem. Without users putting up pictures, police agencies won't have potential access to Facebook's database of pictures of us and won't be able to find us. Commercial entities won't know everything about us and be able to exploit the information we use to "control and exploit human beings in all sorts of ways." While his solution might be effective, should that be what we resort to in order to stop the problem?

Just because there is a risk that something bad can happen to me as a result of my decision to speak online does not mean that I should stop speaking altogether. There is great utility, at least in my opinion and the opinion of many friends with whom I have shared this article or discussed the issue, in being able to use social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Its a great way to stay in touch, its fun, something to do when I'm bored, etc. Social media is a way to get involved in communities one may not otherwise have a chance to get involved with because of, for example, geographical separation. It is a great way for me to learn about new products, television shows, movies, sales promotions, etc.

While everyone ceasing use of social networks would solve the problem of potential online privacy invasions and negative consequences attending such invasions, it would deprive millions of people of something that has great utility, that can be relatively harmless unless used for improper purposes. The first step shouldn't be all-out cessation of social networking but rather stringent regulation, investigation, and enforcement of those regulations against social media companies to prevent them from committing the wrongs Professor Moglen posits they are committing. If I told someone I was scared that a car was going to hit me on the NY streets when I'm walking around Manhattan, would they tell me to never leave my home and never walk around? Or would they say be careful, look both ways before you cross the street, don't jaywalk, etc? We have traffic laws to minimize the risk. Of course even with these laws, accidents happen. Surely if no one used cars, no one would die of car accidents. But never has it been held that we should ban cars as a form of transportation, or stop making cars altogether.

What I'm saying is that Professor Moglen's solution to cease using social media altogether, while possibly effective, is not the proper course of action. People shouldn't shut themselves in from the world to avoid negative consequences of being out in the world. If in fact Facebook and Twitter are selling the photos we use to police around the world (an assertion for which Professor Moglen offers no proof, proof which surely EVERYONE would be interested in), then it needs to be illegal for them to do that. If it is already illegal, then clearly people are not enforcing the law. If Professor Moglen is aware that this practice is happening, then certainly other people would be aware of it to or can be made aware of it and are simply not doing anything about it. They need to do something about it. Professor Moglen calls the user the victim, but at the same time characterizes us as the perpetrator. His characterization is flawed. I am not a perpetrator of my own manslaughter if I walk across the street and am hit by a car. Sure, I technically made the accident possible by walking across the street, but no one in their right mind could call me a perpetrator. I am, of course, the victim.

Professor Moglen analogizes to littering. He states "That’s why I tell you it’s like littering. You should stop doing it before you write in the newspaper that there’s too much garbage on the street." He mischaracterizes the issue posed. That's like saying, "thats why I tell you to stop posting pictures on Facebook, because there are too many pictures on Facebook." The problem isn't that there are too many pictures on Facebook. The problem is that the photos we post in turn are used for improper, invasive purposes. The people posting are not invading people's privacy; others are performing the privacy invasion. Litter is the end-game when I litter. Privacy invasions is not the intended end-game of posting photos on Facebook. It is a subsequent event, committed by a party other than the poster. The people posting, technically, are "causing the problem", in the same way a person "causes" his own death by walking into the street and being subsequently hit by a car. By posting photos I'm in no way consenting to invasion of privacy. People are using what is posted on Facebook and Twitter to accomplish a further goal (e.g., selling photos to police agencies), to invade our privacy. In this way, the litter analogy is not applicable to the situation. The people posting photos are not complaining there are too many photos as the litterer is complaining about too much litter. The people posting photos are complaining about what Facebook and Twitter are in turn doing with those photos.

Social networking, for better or for worse, is implemented and entrenched in our daily lives and likely will be for the foreseeable future. Professor Moglen is right that this is indeed something we should all be concerned about. However, the best solution is to allow these social networking sites to continue on, because of their great utility, but to make sure these alleged privacy invasions don't occur, through legal restriction and effective enforcement. That might sound naive, but I don't think ceasing online communication altogether is the best way to go about solving this problem.

-- AustinKlar - 28 Jan 2012

I don't think that Professor Moglen's position is that everyone should cease using social networks altogether (from what I understood of our class & readings, he is actually a huge proponent of social networking), but that we should stop tolerating badly designed platforms like facebook and twitter.

It's true, as you mention, that legal regulation & enforcement is one way to avoid privacy invasions on social media. But another way is through technology: introduce a well-designed, decentralized social network that makes it technically impossible (or at least very difficult) for invasion of privacy to occur. With thoughtful design, implementation, and adequate user adoption, such a network could completely mimic the benefits that we currently get from Facebook, without the privacy intrusions.

Of course we are all free to make our own decisions and use whatever services we please for online socializing (guilty facebooker here). But by choosing the inertia of existing centralized services over fledgling distributed models for social networking, we are contributing to the "user adoption" problem for why a technology-based solution to social media's invasion of privacy has not popularly been adopted.

More on Professor Moglen's position on this topic:

A list of existing distributed social networks:

--Main.CrystalMao - 28 Jan 2012

I agree with Crystal that Prof. Moglen isn't saying we should abandon social media altogether--I don't think, however, that Austin was really challenging Moglen on this point. Rather, Austin seems to be calling into question the broader logic of our professor's vehement opposition to current social media platforms. And, I think Austin is on to something in this respect:

First, Moglen argues that an individual's use of social media is really only problematic (or, problematic enough to rouse Moglen's concern) because, more than reporting on himself or herself, that individual is reporting on tons of other people who also use social media. In other words, using Facebook--like littering--has harmful consequences beyond the "litterer." But, as Moglen seems to admit in the article Austin posted, the people being "reported on" are part of the social network too.

So, rather than a few "litterers" selfishly ruining the environment for the rest of the tree-hugging public, we actually have a world full of litterers who don't seem to care about or feel the consequences of others' "antisocial" behavior. I think this fact--that everyone who uses social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are both informing and being informed on--weakens Moglen's "moral" justification for fleeing these platforms. I argue that any person who uses Facebook acquiesces to the evisceration of his or her privacy to a certain degree. And, the reason so many people consent to this evisceration is that, for the overwhelming majority, the benefits of doing so dwarf the actual or likely real world consequences.

Moglen may argue that there are people who don't partake in Facebook and similar sites but nevertheless get swept up in and hurt by others' use of these platforms. But, if these people are smart and motivated, they can take extra steps--like Professor Moglen does--to reduce the likelihood of this occurring. Moreover, even if such "collateral damage" is inevitable, it doesn't necessarily follow that fleeing mainstream social media is some kind of moral imperative. Indeed, it seems extreme and unrealistic to define morality as altering one's behavior whenever there is an incalculably small risk that such behavior will pose a risk to some unidentified person in some unidentified place at some unidentified time.

Second, the strength of Moglen's objections depend in large on the harms he identifies. That is, we should only listen to Moglen if a failure to do so would have bad consequences. But, where are these harms? I know, we should fear the secret police, but I just don't know anyone who has had the secret police knock at his or her door because of Facebook or Twitter or any other social media site. I understand that there are "evil police" out there, but this raises the question whether tyranny should dictate the conduct of those living under it let alone the conduct of those--like me--who don't. Moreover, Moglen suggests that but for social media, the evil police of the world wouldn't be able to effectively stifle voices of dissent and revolution. But, as we have seen in the past, the "secret police" of many brutal regimes have managed to brutalize their people without Mark Zuckerberg's help. And, as we see today, secret police cannot stop every uprising despite the advantage new technologies may provide. Indeed, if current events in Syria show us anything, it's not the secret police people should fear but rather the indiscriminate murder of civilians in the streets.

In the article Austin posted, Moglen does cite some concrete harms--he says people lost their homes and jobs and freedom. I'm just not sure what this means. I'm pretty sure people lost their homes because of some combination of undue government involvement in mortgage lending, predatory lending and private greed, and irresponsible borrowing by individuals. Also, the housing bubble collapsed, which didn't help. Furthermore, jobs disappeared because the financial system was infected with toxic assets and the economy began to contract at a rapid pace. I'm not sure where data privacy fits in here--maybe it does in some tangential way. I just doubt that any reasonable authority on the matter would argue that the erosion of data privacy was somehow behind the global financial crisis. -- MatthewLadner - 29 Jan 2012



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r6 - 07 Sep 2012 - 16:47:21 - IanSullivan
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