Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Internet Privacy? Ethical Implications of Social Networking

A forum was held on Tues. Nov. 18th at Tacoma Community College on the ethical implications of social networking. It was sponsored by The Center for Ethical Development at TCC. The panelists included Valerie Zeeck, a lawyer; Jim Crabbe, CEO of Konnects, Inc.; Eva Frey Johnson, the director of Student Involvement at PLU; and Sean VanDommelen, Club Coordinator and Secretary, ASTCC, and was moderated by Mike Towey, an Advisory Council Member of the center.

Some of the questions that the panel sought to answer were "do we consider the ehtical implications when using the internet for social networking" and "what are the ethical implications of the choices made in presenting personal information on these social and business networking websites?" In the opening statements, members of the panel warned that with the exponential expansion of sites such as MySpace and Facebook, students need to consider what kind of information they are presenting to potential employers and future colleges.

Valerie Zeeck began with an explanation of all of the kinds of information that are available to investigators - previous lawsuits, addresses, liscenses, weapons permits, criminal background, etc. She pointed out that though it could be illegal to make desicions to fire people based on information found on social networking sites, you may or may not be hired based on information they find and if they do use it, you may never really know. When pressed later about what the connections might be to her opening statement on the kinds of information that are available to people on the internet, she admitted that the information was available before social networking and that she did not want to give a paranoid spin to the talk (too late!). Interestingly, she said that she really didn't know much about computers and her husband put up her MySpace page for her.

Eva Frey Johnson asked whether or not employers should use information they find on social networking sites to make hiring decisions. She said "why not?" The information has always been available in other forms: how you dress, talk and carry yourself in an interview and what your friends and past employers say about you in reference checks. She gave some interesting statistics that included the fact that 1/3rd of those employers who used social networking sites as part of their vetting process chose not to hire someone based on information they found (evidence of drug or alcohol abuse, or dangerous or anti-social behavior).

Sean VanDommelen gave the student perspective, and he said that students seem to be aware of privacy settings. He uses social networking (MySpace) to push his music. He said we are making choices about ourselves and our identities everytime we push the submit button.

Jime Crabbe said that this new world of connectedness could unlock a lot of human potential. We are just now understanding what it means to be connected 24/7 to everyone. He sees the cell phone as the new laptop: a tool that will bring the web and all the networks to the developing world.

Everyone seemed to agree that students should think about what they post and be more saavy about how many people can actually access your information. Also, the questions focused on whether or not it was ethical for employers to use the information found on social networks. No definitive conclusion was arrived at apart from "assume that they are." Many of the students had the "I would not want to join any club that wouldn't have me as a member" approach.

There were a number of "facts" that were presented that while interesting and inflammatory are harldy true. A couple of the panel members said that everything you put up on MySpace is ALWAYS out there. MySpace is run off of a database that is difficult for crawlers and bots to catalog. Do a search on any MySpace profile in the "Wayback Machine" at Archive.Org to see what I mean. The panel seemed unaware of educational developments in social networking which would have been particularly useful as we are a college with FERPA and copyright concerns. The handout for the event had some interesting unsupported claims such as "Many people go on 'My Space' because they have no friends" and "Many people go on-line with fake or forged identities." many would that be? Eight? A thousand?

I was impressed at how much the students already knew about the privacy setting and the issues involved. These kinds of panel discussions are very important as we are getting more and more students who communicate and share information via blogs, social networks, and texting.

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