Thursday 19 February 2009

The Facebook conundrum - do we need to be protected from ourselves?

Gosh, what a week it's been. Matron just spent all day wading through the European Council's common position on the Telecoms Package. So much so that she simply can't face writing any more about it and is rather looking for some light relief. Cue, the popular media which yesterday took FaceBook to task for clandestinely trying to introduce Terms of Business that would give it the right to use content uploaded by its users even after those users had moved on to greener pastures. Well, that sort of behaviour came as a big surprise to all of us, didn't it?

Now, Matron is not exactly what one would call an early adopter. That much can probably be deduced from the fact that she starts a blog at a time when everybody else is socially networking their little socks off. It has to be said that, for a tech lawyer, Matron is really rather technophobic. She also decided - after a short spell of online addiction back in the mid-nineties, largely related to a certain e-mail list which shall remain nameless (but lets just say that it led to a communal holiday in a cottage in Scotland with a number of people who were - unusal) - that she prefers face-to-face relationships to the virtual variety.

So, like everybody else over the age of 35, she has been following the FaceBook phenomenon with some interest and trepidation. So far, she has firmly rejected her students' untoward online advances, has lectured them, moaned at them, threatened to physically restrain them and, on one occasion, blackmailed them into engaging all possible privacy settings by telling them that she would openly display any of their publicly accessible profiles to attendees of an academic conference. She is also a paid up member of the "FaceBook Moral Panic Support Group" loudly lamenting the fact that things are not what they used to be.

So, although it is highly unfashionable in cyberlaw circles to call for increased legal regulation - technological solutions are still all the rage - Matron sticks by her guns and the points she made previously. What we need is a consumer protection approach that ensures that the purposes for which providers may use their users' personal data are limited in some way. And before all the Americans throw the First Amendment book at her, Matron is not talking about the abandonment of personal responsibility, user autonomy and free speech. She is merely appealing to common sense. Users of "my-way-or-the-highway" adhesion contracts should be subject to some sort of statutory framework.

Hopefully, the more stories are published about the blatant way that some providers abuse their users' data, the more political will there will be to do something about it. For that reason, last night's TV coverage of the FaceBook c***up was chicken soup for the soul. But even better than that, the BBC today published an article about a study that "proves" that online networking harms your health.

Isn't it great when scientific research confirms what you want to believe anyway?

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