Could Facebook be a members only social club?

What is public space? Ok, so it’s important but what is it and how is it defined? The reason I have begun thinking about this again is an attempt to address a question of what government authorities should be allowed to do with publicly available data on social networks such as Facebook.

One of the issues with public space is the way in which we have taken it’s legal status for granted and tend to believe that it will be there when we need it. This is despite the fact that very many of the spaces we see as public are actually private (e.g. shopping malls) and many spaces which were previously public have been privatized.

So why worry about a private public space? Who cares who is responsible for it? The privatization of public space allows for the creation of many local rules which can actually limit our general freedoms. There is, for example, no law against photographing in public. But if the public space is in reality a private space there is nothing stopping the owners from creating a rule against photography. There are unfortunately several examples of this – only last month the company that owns and operates the Glasgow underground prohibited photography.

Another limitation brought about by the privatization of public spaces is the limiting of places where citizens can protest. The occupy London movement did not chose to camp outside St Paul’s for symbolic reasons but because the area land around the church is part of the last remaining public land in the city.

Over the last 20 years, since the corporation quietly began privatising the City, hundreds of public highways, public pathways and rights of way in place for centuries have been closed. The reason why this is so important is that the removal of public rights of way also signals the removal of the right to political protest. (The Guardian)

This is all very interesting but what has it got to do with Facebook?

In Sweden a wide range of authorities from the Tax department to the police have used Facebook as an investigative tool. I don’t mean that they have requested data from Facebook but they have used it by browsing the open profiles and data available on the site. For example the police may go to Facebook to find a photograph, social services may check up if people are working when they are claiming unemployment etc.

What makes this process problematic is that the authorities dipping into the Facebook data stream is not controlled in any manner. If a police officer would like to check the police database for information about me, she must provide good reason to do so. But looking me up on Facebook – in the line of duty – has no such checks.

These actions are commonly legitimized by stating that Facebook is a public space. But is it? Actually it’s a highly regulated private public space. But how should it be viewed? How should authorities be allowed to use the social network data of others? In an article I am writing right now I criticize the view that Facebook is public, and therefore accessible to authorities without limitation. Sure, it’s not a private space, but what about a middle ground – could Facebook be a members only social club? Would this require authorities to respect our privacy online?

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