Facebook, Privacy, and Politicians’ Hypocrisy

by on May 25, 2010 · 5 comments

Facebook has had a tough month. The site’s latest round of privacy changes, implemented last month, spurred stiff backlash — not just from so-called privacy advocates, but also from several U.S. Senators. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shot back with an op-ed in The Washington Post, as Braden discussed here yesterday.

I’ve had much to say about Facebook’s past privacy controversies (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), but what really sticks out about the latest anti-Facebook backlash is who’s leading the charge: U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer.

Seriously, of all people, Chuck Schumer should be the last to criticize Facebook’s privacy practices. That’s because Schumer is leading the push in Congress to establish a biometric national identification regime. If Schumer had his way, all Americans, including U.S. citizens, wishing to legally work in this country would be required by law to obtain a national ID card! Compared to this highly invasive potential exercise of the state’s coercive power, concerns about Facebook’s privacy practices seem downright trivial.

I elaborated on Schumer’s hypocrisy and discussed the problems surrounding federal regulation of online privacy in an op-ed that recently appeared on Townhall.com:

Hypocrisy in politics is nothing new. But Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) set a new standard for it last week when he and three of his colleagues attacked social networking giant Facebook over its privacy practices. In a scathing letter, the senators demanded that Facebook change certain features to give users greater “control over their information.” The real threat to privacy, however, comes not from innovative companies like Facebook, but from posturing politicians.

The controversy began last month when Facebook unveiled several new changes and features. Under the new privacy policy, Facebook user profiles are linked to the popular websites Yelp, Pandora, and Microsoft’s Docs.com by default. Users can opt out of these “social plug-ins.” Facebook also made all users’ likes and interests publicly visible, with no opt-out. These changes angered some users and sparked uproar in the blogosphere.

Naturally, politicians saw this controversy as a chance to score political points by getting involved. Sen. Schumer and company asked federal regulators to “recommend” privacy guidelines for social networking sites, and are reportedly on the verge of introducing legislation to regulate online privacy.

One moment, Sen. Schumer implores Facebook to change its privacy policies. The next, he’s leading the push in Congress to require all Americans to have national ID cards. Unlike social networking sites, which are entirely voluntary, Americans will not be able to “opt out” of Schumer’s national ID scheme. (Schumer’s proposal even requires citizens’ biometric information, like an iris scan or fingerprint.)

Perhaps Sen. Schumer could use a dose of his own privacy medicine.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

  • Ed Felten

    I don't understand the hypocrisy charge here. To claim hypocrisy, you have to argue that there is *no* set of prior policy beliefs that can support both (1) a national ID card system, and (2) privacy regulation of Facebook. But it seems to me that there are self-consistent policy viewpoints that can support both. For example, one might believe that the anti-terrorism imperative requires national ID, and that Facebook is dangerous and untrustworthy.

    (I'm not making these arguments myself, just pointing out that they are self-consistent.)

  • Ryan Radia

    That's a fair point — but if that is what Chuck Schumer believes, he certainly didn't do a very good job of articulating it in his press release:

    http://schumer.senate.gov/new_website/record.cf

    Some excerpts:

    - “Users Need Ability to Control Private Information and Fully Understand How It's Being Used”

    - “The default policy should be one of privacy, and users should be in control of how they choose to share their information, not the other way around”

    - “There are no guidelines for user privacy on social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter and that ever-changing privacy policies adopted by networks are often confusing to understand.”

    “These new common interest pages are a gold mine of marketing data that could be used for spam and potentially scammers, intent on peddling their wares.”

    Of course, the statements excerpted above are in the context of Facebook, not the federal government. But to my knowledge, Mr. Schumer has never articulated any distinction between the legitimacy of private sector data collection and government data collection. If users deserve to be “in control of how they share their information,” why shouldn't they be in control of how they share their fingerprints?

    And if Mr. Schumer is worried that social networks' privacy policies are “ever changing” and “often confusing to understand,” why is he proposing a federal identification system that would almost assuredly be confusing and ever-changing? Does Schumer really think that his proposed national ID program would be any less be confusing than Facebook's privacy practices? And if keeping information private should be the “default,” why shouldn't a national ID require explicit opt-in permission, too?

    Furthermore, if Mr. Schumer is worried that Facebook's servers contain a “goldmine” of personal information ripe for abuse by scammers, why isn't he just as worried about a national ID card being used for mass tracking and surveillance by untrustworthy parties — which is exactly what's happened with the Social Security card?

    Nevertheless, I suppose it's possible that Mr. Schumer isn't really a hypocrite and genuinely does not believe that his national ID proposal raises any major privacy concerns. If that's the case, he's not a hypocrite, he's just a moron.

  • Daigo

    I wished Facebook would hurry up and just simplify there privacy settings already. WHY can't they just make a button that turns off all allowances to third parties?? They're moving slower than most government organizations. Seriously, even the FCC has finally started plugging up those phone bill holes: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2010/05/20/fcc-ma

  • http://www.cato.org Jim Harper

    I think you're being a little precious about the concept of hypocrisy, Ed.

    Senator Schumer is claiming to protect Americans' privacy in the Facebook matter, while working assiduously to undo it in the national ID context. The word “hypocrisy” captures that feigned, contingent interest in privacy pretty well.

    If he can reconcile these inconsistent positions in his mind — more likely he believes he can just buffalo the press and public — it's still hypocritical from my point of view. If Senator Schumer thinks that anti-terrorism requires a national ID, well, then Ryan was being kind not to call him plain ol' stupid! ;-)

  • http://www.cato.org Jim Harper

    I think you're being a little precious about the concept of hypocrisy, Ed.

    Senator Schumer is claiming to protect Americans' privacy in the Facebook matter, while working assiduously to undo it in the national ID context. The word “hypocrisy” captures that feigned, contingent interest in privacy pretty well.

    If he can reconcile these inconsistent positions in his mind — more likely he believes he can just buffalo the press and public — it's still hypocritical from my point of view. If Senator Schumer thinks that anti-terrorism requires a national ID, well, then Ryan was being kind not to call him plain ol' stupid! ;-)

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