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Editorial: The private network

We've all been warned countless times: Everything we post on Facebook can and will be used against us. Internet privacy is almost an oxymoron these days, as companies track our online purchases and distant acquaintances browse our pictures. Most people seem to feel that the responsibility to keep a respectable and private Facebook profile lies entirely with users. Brown Computer Information Services even has a webpage which advises, "That embarrassing photo from last weekend's bash or list of crudely-stated interests could tarnish your reputation with a promising love interest, your professor or alum/future employer."

However, lawmakers in Germany are questioning the notion that all online content is fundamentally public information. A proposed law would make it illegal for companies to use Facebook in evaluating job applicants. This provision is part of a broader workplace privacy bill that would also forbid secret video surveillance of employees and set conditions for employers who want to eavesdrop on workers' e-mails and phone calls.

Under the proposed legislation, employers could still consider publicly accessible information from search engines or career networking sites. But firms will not be permitted to base hiring decisions on content from websites that are used exclusively for social networking. If the bill becomes law, the result will be that job applicants are no longer entirely responsible for an inappropriate wall post or a failure to untag an embarrassing photo.

As many have pointed out, the online privacy aspect of the proposed law seems difficult to enforce, as employers may simply not mention that they check Facebook. But it's not totally unheard of for an act of explicit Facebook-stalking to impact peoples' careers. According to a recent New York Times Magazine article, a 25-year-old aspiring teacher named Stacy Snyder was denied her degree from the Millersville School of Education because a picture on her Facebook profile appeared to promote drinking. Snyder's difficulties began when a supervisor at the public high school where she was training looked up her profile.

While some would probably say Snyder should have monitored the content of her Facebook page a little more carefully, we think the possibility of an online sphere of privacy must be considered. That's why we find the proposed German law so intriguing. It begins to push back against the idea that one's Facebook or MySpace profile is an inherently public venue. While much of the responsibility to safeguard information still lies with site users, we hope society begins to recognize that an instance of lacking online discretion shouldn't ruin people's lives.

Right now, policymakers in the United States are rightfully more concerned with putting people back to work than protecting a worker's right to post drunken photos online. But as social networking becomes more and more integrated into our lives, many of the privacy issues it raises must be addressed. Since sites like Facebook are still relatively new, we fear that many controversies are still yet to be unearthed. Members of our generation are pioneers in the digital age, and it's up to us to approach these important questions realistically and fairly.

Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.


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