This morning I spent some time listening in on a hearing on DHS monitoring of social networking and media. The hearing was held by the US Congressional Sub-committee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, chaired by Patrick Meehan. Transcripts of the testimony are available here ( http://homeland.house.gov/hearing/subcommittee-hearing-dhs-monitoring-social-networking-and-media-enhancing-intelligence ) as well as a video playback of the hearing.
The substance of the discussion did not offer any surprises, but the expressed motivations of the subcommittee members was fascinating. There were repeated mentions of the ‘chilling effect’ on private speech if people knew that their utterances on social media were being captured, stored and analyzed by government entities. Fundamentally, the argument against DHS monitoring of public speech on social media systems was based on protection of free speech rights. This is not a long bow to draw and there are a host of vignettes available in Orwell’s “1984″ that articulate the concept better than I can. What I find interesting about this argument is that it mirrors the rationale that has led various states within Germany to pass laws making it illegal for employers to monitor or capture the social media conversations of their employees.
In the employer/employee scenario, it is possible that an employee will self-censor their public speech if they anticipate a negative reaction by their employer. In the German context, employer monitoring of their employees’ social media activities is viewed as a privacy intrusion that limits free speech and public debate. (Set aside for the moment the issue of the enforceability of such a law.) Similar logic is being voiced in support of new EU regulations regarding privacy and data protection.
If we accept that government monitoring of social media conflicts with free speech rights, it is a short path to drawing the same conclusion concerning employer monitoring of social media. When an employee represents an employer in social media, we expect the employee to self-censor and we also expect the employer to obtain and deploy security controls that monitor for compliance and enforce policy where possible. Should that same self-censorship be expected in all use of social media by employees or should society place limits on the degree to which employers can inspect their employees’ personal activities and use the fruits of that inspection to drive management decisions?
This is a tricky area. In certain circumstances it is illegal under US laws for an employer to seek out personal information regarding an employee or job candidate. For example, in a job interview, it is illegal to ask an employee about their religious affiliation or whether they are pregnant or plan to get pregnant. It is trivial to discover this information if the individual is a regular participant in Facebook. In other circumstances, there are no legal restrictions on employers viewing the activities of employees in a public environment.
If we want to support free speech in social media without any fear of retribution by employers or potential employers, we have a lot of work ahead of us. To start with, it is impossible to block employers from seeing the social media conversations of employees or possible future employees. What if a manager uses their home PC or a cybercafe to view a user profile? How could we identify the manager’s relationship to the employer? Should social media providers provide logs of source IPs and user profiles utilized to view a person’s profile? This might enable the user to identify who was looking at their profile, but the collection, storage and dissemination of this data would create a significant burden on social media providers. I am also dubious that the average user would actually analyze this data to detect who was having a look. The various social media platforms already offer a host of privacy features that users can configure to restrict access to their content, but the adoption of these capabilities is spotty at best. Placing the burden on the average user is not realistic any more than we would expect people to wear disguises when they attend a public event that their employer opposes.
At the end of the day, this is a social problem, not a technological problem. Despite this, we can expect to see a blizzard of attempts at regulation and a steady flow of technology and services that attempt to control employer actions and protect employees’ free speech. This is why Gartner positions social media as a disruptive technology. Social media is actively disrupting traditional patterns of social interaction; creating both benefits and threats to all of us.