IIT Chicago-Kent NewsBrief
WARNING: What happens on Facebook doesn't always stay on Facebook
CHICAGO—January 17, 2012—If you are what you post online, what does your digital self say about you...and to whom?
According to Lori B. Andrews, a distinguished professor of law and director of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law's Institute for Law, Science and Technology, "Our digital identities on the Web—e-mails, personal websites, instant messaging and social media pages—are starting to overshadow our physical identities. We are creating digital profiles of ourselves that redefine us—and that could come back to haunt us."
Andrews, who has spent more than three decades studying the convergence of new technologies, ethics and the law, is the author of I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy, a new book that explores the burgeoning social and legal consequences of our obsession with social networking.
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, Google+ and other social networks have become ubiquitous, necessary and addictive, says Andrews. Social networking is no longer just a pastime. For many, it has become a way of life. There are more than 1.25 billion users on the five most popular social networking sites—with nearly half of them on Facebook.
"If Facebook were a country," observes Andrews, "the more than 750 million active members who populate the site would make Facebook the world's third-largest nation." Far-fetched? Not really. Facebook has citizens, an economy, its own currency, systems for resolving disputes, and relations with other nations and institutions as evidenced by CEO Mark Zuckerberg's attendance at the G-8 summit in France last spring.
"It's easy to understand why people flock to Facebook and other social networks. But it's harder to anticipate what will happen to you when you become a 'citizen' of this new world. Reputations, opportunities and even jobs have been lost as a result of social media messages gone awry," adds Andrews.
Governments in democracies exist to protect their citizens and uphold their rights. Is there anarchy in the Facebook nation? No, but the governing rules—its terms of service—shift rapidly and without warning. All the rights run in one direction. Facebook holds all the cards and its citizens have little recourse beyond leaving the network entirely, says Andrews. In addition, federal Internet laws enacted prior to the advent of social networking protect these sites from a variety of lawsuits—including those arising from invasion of privacy, defamation or criminal acts based on postings.
What are Facebook and other social network citizens to do? Andrews proposes what she calls a "Social Network Constitution" based on the expression of fundamental values that should be used to judge the activities of social networks and their citizens. Concerned that social networks are driven by computer engineering and data collection entities, Andrews says the "constitution" would protect ten fundamental rights and freedoms and safeguard the sanctity of our digital selves. She has established a website, The Social Network Constitution, (www.socialnetworkconstitution.com), to encourage dialogue among those interested in forming "a more perfect Internet."
Until the legal issues related to social networking are sorted out, Andrews warns users, "Unlike Vegas, what happens on Facebook doesn't always stay on Facebook."
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