Privacy Settings: Facebook, Google, Twitter and Old Prussian Law

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California Senator Ellen Corbett has tabled a bill that would force online services and social networking sites to make the default user settings private (except for the user’s name and city of residence). Users will be forced to choose their privacy settings when they register.  This stands in sharp contrast to the current operating model for these sites—much evangelized by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg—which makes nearly all personal information public by default.  If you want to limit access to your information, you need to find the correct settings and secure yourself.  As you’ might suspect, the major social networking sites have banded together to challenge the bill.  So now, what do Google, Facebook, Skype, and Twitter have to do with Prussian Law?  I’m glad you asked.

First, remember that these social networking sites make money on your personal information.  Advertisers, market researchers, and many others pay huge sums for access to the database of personal information that gets posted and stored on sites like Facebook.  So long as people don’t manually opt out of the full disclosure settings, Facebook can organize, catalogue, and share personal data with others for profit.  The harder it is to access that information, the harder it is to make gobs of money on it.

No wonder the social networking sites are so pissed off about this California legislation.  If the default user settings were private, then these sites would have to rely on people manually going through the complicated privacy options to share their personal data and allow the sites themselves to use it for profit.

In an effort to block the bill, the major websites are arguing that this legislation would undermine the ability of people to make informed, meaningful choices about the use of their personal data.  Are you uncomfortable yet? I am. Do you smell something fishy?  I do.

I don’t see how someone’s rights to free speech and informed choice are restricted by forcing them to understand and choose to share their data, rather than the opposite.  These new rules would give users better control over their own information.  To me, it doesn’t make any sense to argue that open by default with the option to impose privacy restrictions is reasonable, but that locked down by default with the option to remove privacy restrictions is an assault on liberty or freedom of choice.

There is an interesting tension here that actually gets mirrored in Western culture’s legal history … That tension is captured by the famous difference between English Common Law (which North America inherited) and old Prussian Law.   In English law, everything is permissible that is not expressly forbidden.  In Prussian law, everything is forbidden that is not expressly permitted.

What kind of rules do you want to abide by?  the strict, conservative ones that restrict that which is not expressly allowed by the law … Or the liberating rule set which allows anything that the law doesn’t explicitly restrict.

Here’s the thing, when it comes to my life outside of my computer, I am a firm believer in the value of personal freedoms.   But when it  comes to big corporations farming my personal information … Call me Prussian!

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