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The Antisocial Social Networking Bill

By Sonia Arrison
May 18, 2011 5:00 AM PT

Facebook is having a tough month. First, it was revealed that the company hired a PR firm to portray competitor Google in a negative light, and now it is facing an even worse scenario: government regulation.

The Antisocial Social Networking Bill

The Social Networking Privacy Act (SB 242) introduced into the California Senate by Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, would force any social networking site to make new users choose their privacy settings when they register and make the default settings private except for the user's name and city of residence.

This is a huge challenge to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg who has argued that making personal data public is the new "social norm."

Threat to Free Expression

Clearly, the battle over what constitutes the appropriate social norm is up for grabs. According to Corbett, "you shouldn't have to sign in and give up your personal information before you get to the part where you say 'please don't share my personal information.'"

This might sound like common sense at first, but someone should remind the senator that signing up for Facebook is voluntary. No one is required to log in or give up their data.

In addition to its stipulations about privacy settings, the bill would force social networking sites to remove any personally identifying information that a user wants to delete and would allow parents to edit their children's Facebook profiles.

Suddenly the horror that "Mom's on Facebook" could mean a lot more than potential embarrassment for kids. For those under 18, it might mean deletion of one's online identity.

Corbett's bill is clearly a reaction to the unbridled enthusiasm Zuckerberg has shown for data sharing, but it goes too far in the other direction. As advocacy group NetChoice has pointed out, "the bill would chill free expression by requiring social networks to remove any statements about an individual that include their picture, video, or place of employment (regardless of age) upon that individual's request."

The penalty for not responding would be US$10,000 for each incidence -- a fee that cash-hungry legislators would no doubt love to get their hands on.

Of course, the bill does not specifically target Facebook. Other social networking sites, such as dating sites or even nonprofit school-run social websites would be subject to the rules if the bill should pass. This is where sober reflection should direct legislators toward considering their proper role.

Leave Entrepreneurs Alone

Should government be in the business of designing social networking rules in a free and open marketplace? Every time such a question arises, it recalls clunky, inflexible, and slow government-run agencies like California's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Like all online sites, Facebook is not perfect -- and it has lost serious face after its attempt to smear Google -- but it won't be better after state bureaucrats get their hands on it. And once they do, they may not be willing to let go.

Corbett's social networking bill is not just antisocial. It's an attack on the freedom of all technology entrepreneurs to run their businesses.

In the case of Facebook, more than 500 million users have already voluntarily signed up under the current model, so it's hard to believe that a politician in Sacramento, part of a government mired in debt and inefficiency, would have a better idea of how to run the enterprise.

Silicon Valley doesn't like to spend brain cycles on local politics, but this is one case where everyone should pay attention and educate their lawmakers on the harmful consequences of government micromanagement.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute. Follow her on Twitter @soniaarrison.

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