Privacy. It’s a word we hear a lot in the digital age, especially now that Facebook and Twitter are signing on users practically straight from the womb. It’s also a concept very few people understand. Just type your name into the search engine pipl.com. If you’re like me, you’re fortunate enough to have a fairly common name, but even then an alarming amount of information can show up. The funny thing about that search engine is everything on it is either in the public record or was shared by the person to whom it pertains. That’s right, we’re to blame for the vast majority of private information that is publicly available.
Legislators in California are trying to reduce the amount of information we accidentally share by imposing new privacy laws on social media. Here’s a quick breakdown of what the bill would require of social networks and their interactions will California residents, which I borrowed from AllThingsD:
- Establish default settings that prohibit the public or private display of anything other than a user’s name and city without their consent.
- Require new users to pick privacy settings during the registration process.
- Write their privacy options “in plain language” and display them in an “easy-to-use format.”
- Remove personally identifying information, including photos, within 48 hours of a user’s request.
- Pay up to $10,000 each time they fail to do any of this.
I really think this would be great for most consumers, even if it is terrible for Facebook and its ilk. Facebook is already notorious for complicated security policies and its utter failure to be able to remove pictures from its servers. To be sure, Facebook does believe this bill is bad for business, as does virtually every other major player in the tech industry. The major players (most notably Facebook, Google, Twitter, Skype) submitted a formal letter of opposition to the bill, encouraging a no vote for various reasons.
You can read through the reasons at your leisure, but I think one stands out as worthy of discussion above the others. According to the letter, the bill is unconstitutional because of the following: “By hiding from view of all existing usersʼ information until they made a contrary choice, the State of California would be significantly limiting those usersʼ ability to “freely speak, write and publish his or her sentiments on all subjects.”
I’m not going to touch the freedom of speech thing, mostly because I think the real issue here is the implication that people freely and willingly choose to share their information with the world and that they understand the consequences of doing so. I just don’t think that’s the case. Social media is far too young for anyone to fully understand its social implications and consequences.
The most famed example of the world’s failure to comprehend the scope of internet privacy is likely that of Kirsten Ostrenga, a teenager known by the pseudonym Kiki Kannibal, who was recently profiled in Rolling Stone. Without spoiling the read too much, Ostrenga was bullied at school to the point that her parents pulled her out. She started a MySpace page, then moved to the teen streaming site Stickam, became a victim of statutory rape and sexual assault along the way, received countless death threats (and still does), and entertains an endless stream of harassment both online and in the real world. Certainly her parents are responsible for no small part of Kirsten’s troubles, but it’s now Kirsten who attempts to deal with the social aftermath. She’s quoted in Rolling Stone as saying, “How do you even meet people? Like, how do you connect with people? In person, it’s just so weird, no one talks to me.”
That quote is alarming, but perhaps more alarming are the decisions the Ostrenga family made surrounding Kirsten’s rise to internet fame. The family bounced around Florida, losing a house to foreclosure and eventually filing bankruptcy because they felt unsafe, thanks in part to the carelessness of a 14-year-old.
The harsh reality is that our web presence can quickly bleed into the physical world, sometimes to devastating consequence. My guess is that SB 242, the privacy bill mentioned above, will fail, voted out because it poses a “serious” threat to California’s tech economy. I’d also be willing to wager that we’ve just seen the beginning of the privacy crisis, that the bad cases will get much worse from here, and there will be thousands of Kirsten Ostrengas out there, wondering how they can possibly meet another person in the real world.