Watch what you say

April 27, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

I came across two articles over the last week that remind me why I have decided not to return to Facebook (regular readers would know I joined Facebook a few months ago after much hesitation, only to find Facebook changed its Terms of Service – so I deleted everything). I remember a relative of mine (Russian) told me that during the Communist era, you were very careful who you spoke to and what you said. Might just be that we’re in this situation again.

A piece in the Sydney Morning Herald caught my eye. A Sydney company is being hired by large corporations to (frankly) spy on Facebook users. Corporates are of course always concerned about their reputation and brand risk. I get that. But now that our conversations and connections are increasingly public, it seems we are vulnerable to employers knowing more about us than we might wish. Some people are just plain stupid IMHO. Take the case of Domino pizza employees in the US doing disgusting things to customers’ food and posting a video of themselves to YouTube. They were sacked and arrested. Really, just how dumb can people be!

But there are also times you might update your Facebook page and say “I hate my  job” or “I don’t like working for the Government”. You don’t name the employer. Think you’re safe? Think again. An Australian woman was doing a spot of casual work for a Queensland Government agency. After a long day, she updated her Facebook status and said that she would be “saying no to working for shitty Government departments”.  She did not name the specific agency or any individual. But a colleague and a friend (better watch your friends on Facebook) both saw her update and helpful people that they are – told the boss. When she turned up for work the next day, she was escorted out the door. Personally, I’d be going the employer for unfair dismissal but as a casual she probably can’t.

The second news item demonstrates just how your own personal feelings can be made public and land you and your family into trouble. A US college student, who clearly didn’t like her hometown, ranted about it on her MySpace page. I’m not going to get into what the issues are with the hometown – the point is I think anyone has a right to say what they think (how you say it though needs to be thought about). But this college girl was vilified from pillar to post for her opinion. The local high school principal found her MySpace page (seems her sister was still at the high school) and forwarded the student’s rant to the editor of the local newspaper, who promptly published it as a Letter to the Editor. The student contacted the editor and asked for the rant not to be published but it was copied from her MySpace page and published (hello? isn’t this copyright infringement?!).

Aside from copyright infringement, I would be asking at this point – isn’t this also an invasion of privacy? The girl ranted on her personal MySpace page (I would be interested to know what her privacy settings were) – then the editor publishes it without permission. The backlash was so severe, including death threats and gunshots, that the family had to pack up and flee town. Now, I didn’t read the MySpace rant as it was taken down pretty fast. Perhaps she was silly enough to name individuals and defame them. But the issue to me is why this isn’t an invasion of privacy case. It ended up going to a California State appellate court, which ruled that the publication of the letter did not violate privacy rights.

When I found the judgment (Moreno v Hanford Sentinel), I soon found out why this isn’t an invasion of privacy because the Justice based the decision on this logic:

“Here, (name) publicized her opinions about (hometown) by posting the Ode on myspace.com, a hugely popular internet site. (Her) affirmative act made her article available to any person with a computer and thus opened it to the public eye. Under these circumstances, no reasonable person would have had an expectation of privacy regarding the published material.

In other words, it’s public, it’s fair game. I haven’t seen the brief – possibly the student argued too narrowly (making the case turn on whether or not her rant was a private fact. If her page was only limited to access by a private network of friends and not the whole world, then her case might have been stronger – hence my comment about wondering what her privacy settings were).

Digging further, I found that the student never published her surname on her MySpace page but by some miracle, her surname appeared in the Letter to the Editor. Obviously, this is a small enough town that the editor knew the college student and decided to add the surname. Is her surname not a private fact?  Her MySpace page from what I’ve read only carried her first name and her photo. Clearly, she chose not to publish her surname yet the editor saw fit to do so.

I’d be asking further questions too: was the editor sacked? were the people who made death threats prosecuted? was emotional distress inflicted?

Okay, so I’m not fully conversant with US law but seems to me this particular case has a glaring lesson for all of us: whatever you say on a social network can be found and used by employers (who are increasingly snooping) and possibly waives your right to privacy. This is why I have no MySpace presence and a half-baked Facebook page that says zilch.  If you want to know how to use Facebook safely, go here.

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Entry filed under: Facebook, MySpace, Privacy. Tags: .

Two acts I’m in heaven

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