Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Blogging and Facebook: Privacy Concerns v.3.0

To pile on the recurring topic of privacy concerns raised by blogging and social networking sites like, I offer a story from yesterday's Business Week Online, "Big Brother is Reading Your Blog." Here is an interesting excerpt:

Corporate bloggers are also coping with increased vigilance by bosses. Getting fired for blog entries is so common now that it's come to be characterized by the term "dooced.", a blog kept by one of the dooced, has seen its traffic more than double over the past year, according to Web site ranker Alexa. One networker who asked not to be identified says she regularly peppers her entries with fiction so she can avoid being identified by her employer.

The less-rebellious users are simply stepping up use of privacy controls, long supplied by sites such as While users had the ability to implement online features to block school administrators and staff from viewing entries for months, "people are starting to get them more aggressively recently," says Chris Kelly,'s chief privacy officer. Kelly was hired for this newly created position last fall.

It appears from comments in class and comments on this site that Mr. Kelly has a big job ahead of him, educating people on the issues of privacy (or lack thereof) on Facebook.

Although it's note directly related to the employment law angle, I thought some of you might also find the following excerpt of interest:

Usage patterns are changing swiftly. A couple of examples of the newest users: A college professor in North Carolina has scanned profiles to determine which students to accept into his class. Penn State University campus police used The Facebook, which only grants entry to people with .edu addresses, to identify students who rushed the field during the October Penn State vs. Ohio State University game, during which two police officers were injured.

The participants had formed a special "I rushed the field" group, complete with names and pictures, says Tyrone Parham, assistant director of campus police. Parham and his team ended up issuing warnings to more than 50 people in that group. "They were surprised -- they thought it was a private Web site," he says. "But we just did a couple of clicks, and here was everybody's picture."

Fighting fire with fire, some students search sites for evidence of lurking undercover campus cops or resort to subterfuge. At George Washington University, political-communications senior Kyle Stoneman and his buddies baited campus police by billing an innocent get-together a "Death Party" on the posting. After the police came calling, the group had switched the name to a "Love Party," promising guests hugs and kisses for showing up, Stoneman says.


Blogger A. Das said...

I think this issue is especially relevant to IU students due to the events surrounding the Ann Coulter speech. Luckily, nothing serious took place and those causing a scene were removed from the Auditorium. But say a brawl had broken out and a Facebook group had subsequently been formed consisting of people claiming to have been involved in the fight. Could IUPD/BPD use that Facebook group as evidence against students? From what I read today in the IDS, there's already a group for people who got kicked out of the Auditorium during Coulter's speech!

Perhaps more importantly, is it fair to use Facebook/Blogs to pass judgement on people? I do not think so because there is very little barrier for someone to join a Facebook group or start a Blog which gives the reader a false impression of themselves. I could easily join the "I got kicked out of the Ann Coulter speech" group even though I did not even attend the event!

5:06 PM  
Blogger Professor Prenkert said...

a. das: You're correct that there's almost no barrier to joining such a group and belonging to such a group cannot be considered irrebutable evidence of a person's wrongdoing. (For instance, a prosecutor is never going to be able to win a conviction based on the fact that someone joined a Facebook group, especially if there is evidence to the contrary -- like that the accused wasn't at the event in question.) But, the simple fact is that the individual has the ability to join or not join any particular group. So, to the extent that a person joins a Facebook group (even if not "actually" a member of the group) and a potential friend, a romantic interest, an instructor, or an employer draws an adverse inference from the membership, that seems to me to be the breaks of voluntarily associated oneself with a potentially controversial group/topic in a publicly viewable forum.

Now, are there limits to what I'm suggesting? What if a potential employer logged on Facebook, found the applicant was a member of a group organized around some protected classification under Title VII or any equal employment opportunity law (e.g., Muslim Student Union, a particular Protestant church denomination, Black Law Students Association, etc.), and decided not to hire the applicant on that basis?

11:18 AM  
Blogger Corey Meridew said...

Professor Prankert's final hypothetical has me perplexed. I see no easy solution to this problem. I'm going to think on that post and try to come back to it. I think this issue is fascinating.

3:12 PM  
Blogger Ben Beranek said...

In response to Professor Prenkert's hypothetical, I think that the employer would be guilty of violating Title VII. It seems like this violation goes beyond normal employer discrimination in that the employer has initiated an information search which then led to a tenuous revelation of protected Title VII information. Furthermore, the employer then acted upon this tenuous information and based a hiring decision on it. This seems to be an intentionally malicious Title VII violation.

Furthermore, it is possible that someone join a FaceBook group which has as one of its primary identifiers a Title VII piece of information, but that they are only social contacts of that group and not direct members in it. For example, I'm involved with the student group InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and there is a facebook group called IU InterVarsity. It is not the case that you need to be a Christian to be a member of either the fellowship (this is necessary for one to be an officer in the organization) or the facebook group. If an employer discriminated along these lines, I think that EEOP should be contacted and legal action be taken.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Jessica Walker said...

I think the hardest part of such a situation as discussed above is not whether it would constitute a Title VII violation--it most certainly would--but what could be done about it. The chances that a potential employee would be aware that such a search, and unlawful decision resulting from the search, was made are slim. If you are never aware that a potential employer was looking at your Facebook, it wouldn't even occur to you to file a complaint of discrimination based on something like religion, which you did not mention during the interview process.

It is the stealth of such searches that makes it a problematic issue.

12:00 PM  

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