Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Arrogant Intrusions into Personal Freedom and the House GOP (not about women's health issues)

“No matter how cynical I get, I just can’t keep up.”
—Lily Tomlin

Okay, so when was the last time Facebook was on the right side of a privacy issue? Well, they are this time—of course, it’s also in their selfish interest to be on the right side of this one, so they don’t get a lot of credit, but still….

Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer, Eric Egan, issued a statement about the abhorrent policy adopted by some potential employers, including (especially?) law enforcement agencies, of requiring job applicants to surrender their passwords to Facebook and similar social media accounts as part of the interview process. Egan points out that:
As a user, you shouldn’t be forced to share your private information and communications just to get a job. And as the friend of a user, you shouldn’t have to worry that your private information or communications will be revealed to someone you don’t know and didn’t intend to share with just because that user is looking for a job. That’s why we’ve made it a violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password.
The legalistic tone is actually supported here: the insistence that an applicant reveal private information is indeed a violation of the TOS agreement with Facebook. In other words, the request is a de facto demand to break a contract: the fact that the most egregious offenders are law enforcement agencies—as, for example, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and the McLean County, IL, sheriff's office, as spelled out in Manuel Valdes’s AP article last week—adds a piquant savor of irony to the whole mix.

It is, of course, all well and good for those of us not on the job market to be righteously indignant about this policy—and certainly all prospective employers who try this kind of crap should be called out on it, publicly—but the fact is that in this economic environment, applicants will do pretty much anything to get a job. This makes it all the more important that employers act responsibly, and all the less likely that they’ll actually do so.

Employers can get away with being arrogant asshats, so they’ll jerk off to their little power plays at least until such time as the pool of well-qualified candidates is significantly affected either by lack of applications to begin with or by enough job-seekers telling the personnel office to perform an act most easily accomplished by especially limber hermaphrodites. More importantly, this affects all of us, not just those who are being extorted directly. If you give up your password, my privacy as your friend is compromised, even to the extent that an employer who has no real intention of hiring you, anyway, now has access to my private communications to you.

It’s no wonder Facebook is a little grumpy about this. I find myself constantly warning my students about things they have released to the public. And Facebook has always been rather free and easy with other people’s privacy—making default privacy settings as loose as possible, sometimes without as much as telling users of new policies. This Machiavellian hellishness is worse, however: if I’m taking reasonably good care of my own privacy, I have relatively little to fear from your actions—I need to expect that anything I post to your wall, for example, will be read by people who are strangers to me or even antagonistic towards me. But I can do something about that, simply by not posting anything I’m not perfectly happy to have associated with me by everyone from my boss to my students to my teenaged niece.

Giving over your log-in credentials, however, means that your prospective employer has access to my private messages to you: the one about my loved one’s terminal illness, my decision to look for another job, my venting about my boss (which I’d only do to you, because I rightly trust your integrity and trustworthiness, although I underestimate your economic desperation). And as if that weren’t enough, some hack in the personnel office also gets to find out what sites I’ve liked: they’re not interested in the fact that I’m a New York Rangers fan, or even that I like the Grateful Dead… no, they care about the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network; Being Liberal; Don’t Invite Anyone Who Thinks Ayn Rand Makes Sense to Your Next Party; The Other 98%. Because thus invading my privacy means, to their McCarthyite mentality, that you hang around with undesirables… even if I haven’t seen you since we were in high school together almost 40 years ago and we weren’t really close even then. Of course, this all presupposes that the little parasites are even pretending to be doing their job and not just feeding their voyeuristic fantasies: a hasty assumption, to be sure.

Oh, how I wish the people conducting these little assaults on a free society weren’t dead stupid. I’d love it if someone asked for a Facebook password and hired the first person who showed appropriate common sense and discretion and told them fold it five ways and shove it where the sun don’t shine. Alas, the folks perpetrating this unethical and sleazy attack on personal freedom are generally dumber than the proverbial box of rocks. One of my students reminded me this morning of the late, great, George Carlin’s observation: “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize that half of them are stupider than that.” Yeah, that seems rather pertinent about now.

The only slightly less sleazy first cousin of this tactic is to insist that employees “friend” their boss or some minion in the personnel office or whatever. This is still intrusive, still unethical, but it can be circumvented, and it’s not going to open up other people’s lives to scrutiny. Of course, there’s still something creepy about this business: I consciously avoid friending students or others who might think they’re under some obligation to respond favorably to a friend request. I will respond to their requests to me, but they must initiate the process. The result is that there are a number of students with whom I’m rather close but who are not FB friends, whereas others whom I know only slightly are friended (some are granted only limited access to my page, however). But that’s OK. I really have no particular desire to be a stalker.

The reason I’m writing about this is more than simply astonishment at the audacity of the perpetrators, however. You see, Congressman Earl Perlmutter (D-CO) tried to do something about this situation. He introduced an amendment to a House bill, attempting to allow the FCC to prevent the practice:
Nothing in this Act or any amendment made by this Act shall be construed to limit or restrict the ability of the Federal Communications Commission to adopt a rule or to amend an existing rule to protect online privacy, including requirements in such rule that prohibit licensees or regulated entities from mandating that job applicants or employees disclose confidential passwords to social networking web sites.
And not a single Republican in the whole damned House of Representatives voted for it. Really.

OK, OK, so Perlmutter’s scheme may have been more political than substantive. It was a motion to re-commit. That means he wanted to send the whole bill (the Federal Communications Commission Process Reform Act of 2012, to be precise) back to committee. He wanted to delay the passage of the bill, in other words. He could have introduced the amendment per se, and didn’t. He chose instead a tactic that, had it been successful (in legislative as opposed to political terms), would have thwarted, at least for a while, legislation intended to make the FCC more transparent. Wait… I thought it was the Democrats who wanted transparency and the Republicans who were obstructionists. But, then again, it was the Democrats under Clinton who played around with the Clipper Chip and similar nonsense (albeit the erosion of 1st Amendment rights by the PATRIOT Act—the most perversely ironic political term since Bolshevik—trumps all). You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.

Anyway, Greg Walden (R-OR), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, argued that Perlmutter’s amendment “wouldn’t protect the consumer.” Ummmm… were any of us talking about consumers? In any case, Walden argued that the amendment wouldn’t work (why not?), all the while pretending that his objections weren’t just as disingenuous as Perlmutter’s motion. The Republicans wanted their bill passed, and the Democrats wanted to play for time. But Perlmutter and his cohorts also know that this topic is a political winner for their side, especially if they can maneuver the GOP into opposing this obviously people-friendly legislation. The House Republicans would have to be pretty stupid to fall for that little subterfuge. Needless to say, they are, and they did.

Walden might even be telling the truth that he really is interested in privacy issues and really is willing to talk further about the topic. But the political horse is already out of the barn. The Democrats might not have gotten everything on their wish list, but they accomplished their principal objective of those within their reach: not really able to influence legislation, they succeeded in making the Republicans look bad… not that those guys need any help. It was a cynical ploy, and it worked. Ah, the political life…

There’s a Bob Dylan lyric that sums up the Democrats’ strategy:
You didn't know it
You didn't think it could be done
In the final end he won the wars
After losin’ every battle.
The song? “Idiot Wind.”


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