Author: Alessandra Garbagnati, Legal Fellow, Privacy and Technology Project 2012
As social networking sites have become more pervasive, the amount of private information shared online continues to grow. For some, this is just seen as the cost one must pay to take advantage of the convenience offered by the Internet. Others, however, hardly realize the effect of the information they both knowingly and unknowingly share. By bringing these issues to the forefront in in her recent book, I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did, Lori Andrews argues that perhaps these consumers should.
Professor Andrews is a law professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent School of the Law, where she is also the direct of the Institute for Science Law and Technology. In addition to work her as a professor, she also has advised the US Government on emerging technology, most notably on the effects of the Human Genome Project.
Professor Andrews employs compelling case studies and stories to illustrate some of the negative effects of social media and to demonstrate the courts’ current inability to address it. The issues presented by Professor Andrews range from freedom of speech to social networks’ effects on the legal system. While all of the issues present challenges of their own, the three most fascinating themes dealt with her discussion of the “Second Self,” how to find a balance between often competing policy issues, and the general loss of control of our private data. Professor Andrews ultimately presents a Social Network Constitution that consists of the rights that we as consumers should demand. For the most part, Professor Andrews’ book is a thought-provoking read, one that should be read by more social network users. However, although the Social Network Constitution is a good eventual solution to these problems, the book offers few suggestions on what consumers can do in the meantime to achieve that goal.
1. The Real versus the “Second Self”
Many consumers are aware that when they post information about themselves on sites like Facebook, they are making that information available to the public. For the most part, social networking sites would not function well without at least some recognition of that truth. Professor Andrews, however, raises the deeper concern posed by social networks – that when we post information online, we are not only posting information about our actual selves, but are also creating a “second self.” This “second self” is the persona assembled from the data mined from the information we share about ourselves. Although these two selves may seem similar, the “second self” consists of a collection of information that may seem inane in context, but imply personas that may be inaccurate or based on stereotypes. For instance, two people’s searches of real estate listings may yield different results based on information about that person’s race or gender. Professor Andrews also poses the concern that this Second Self may affect health insurance policies or credit ratings.
2. Creating a Balance with Competing Policy Issues at Stake
Throughout the book, Andrews discusses many important questions and issues raised by the rise of social media and the law’s inability to address those issues. These discussions touch upon issues ranging from cyberbullying to the use of social media postings as evidence in criminal or custody cases. In doing so, Andrews recognizes and tries to reconcile the thin line that one must use to balance these issues and achieve the most proper and fair result. For instance, although governments should recognize one’s freedom of speech and association on the Internet, limitations should also be put in place to allow people to remove potentially defamatory or otherwise private information online. Similarly, although Andrews argues that a right to connect to the Internet should exist, she also questions whether certain users who abuse the Internet should be prevented from accessing it at all.
3. Losing Control
Creating a Social Network Constitution
The book’s overarching theme is that the world needs a Social Network Constitution and the final chapter of the book is the culmination of this concept. This Constitution pulls together each of the issues put forth in Professor Andrews’ book and creates certain digital rights that would better protect the rights of all those who use social networks. It pieces together and creates a balance between some of the competing problems created by social networks. And while many solutions to digital issues look at privacy the national level, Professor Andrews’ Social Network Constitution applies globally.
Andrews fails to provide actionable steps
Although the rights protected by Professor Andrews’ Social Network Constitution are important, other than the proposal of the actual Constitution, there is little information in the book about how to achieve that goal and how to effectuate change. A book such as this has the potential to push consumers to action: to demand that they be able to maintain better control over the user of their information. The book, however, lacks in providing resources for how and where consumers can participate in the current debate about data privacy. For instance, Professor Andrews mentions the many advocates and advocacy groups working on these issues, but there is little mention of where and how to connect with those groups. While consumers themselves can find avenues through which to voice their concerns, there is still a disconnect on how we as a society can get from the problems posed in this book to being able to create a Social Network Constitution. Furthermore, while a Social Network Constitution may be an ideal solution down the line, there is little discussion of whether and to what extent the privacy laws of various nations must be reconciled in order to address these issues across the globe.
Overall, Professor Andrews’ book is a fascinating read. While the message of the book is not for the world to shun the Internet and social networks, it raises awareness of these issues and urges consumers to demand more control over the use of their information. As such, this book is one that should not only be read by those already interested in consumer privacy, but more importantly, the average social networks user who may not be aware of the pervasive loss of their privacy.
This post was originally published on the Hastings Science & Technology Blog.