Social networking is no place for government to make policy

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The Social Networking Privacy Act (SB 242) authored by state Sen. Ellen Corbett, a San Leandro Democrat, would force any social-networking site to make new users choose their privacy settings when they register and make the default settings private except for the user’s name and city of residence.

This is a huge challenge to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who has argued that making personal data public is the new “social norm.” Clearly, the battle over what constitutes the appropriate social norm is up for grabs.

According to Corbett, “You shouldn’t have to sign in and give up your personal information before you get to the part where you say, ‘Please don’t share my personal information.’” This might sound like common sense at first, but someone should remind the senator that signing up for Facebook is voluntary. No one is required to log in or give up their data.

In addition to stipulations about privacy settings, the bill would also force social-networking sites to remove any personally identifying information that a user wants to delete and would allow parents to edit their children’s Facebook profiles. Suddenly the horror that “Mom’s on Facebook,” could mean a lot more than potential embarrassment for kids. For those under 18, it might mean deletion of one’s online identity.

Corbett’s bill is clearly a reaction to the unbridled enthusiasm Zuckerberg has shown for data sharing, but her bill goes too far in the other direction. As advocacy group NetChoice has pointed out, “The bill would chill free expression by requiring social networks to remove any statements about an individual that include their picture, video or place of employment [regardless of age] upon that individual’s request.” The penalty for not responding would be $10,000 for each incidence — a fee that cash-hungry legislators would no doubt love to get their hands on.

The bill, of course, does not specifically target Facebook. Other social-networking sites, such as dating sites or even nonprofit school-run social websites would be subject to the rules if the bill passes. This is where sober reflection should direct legislators toward considering their proper role.

Should government be in the business of designing social-networking rules in a free and open marketplace? Every time such a question arises, it recalls clunky government-run agencies like the DMV. Like all online sites, Facebook is not perfect, but it won’t be better after state bureaucrats get their hands on it. Once they do, they may not be willing to let go.

Corbett’s social networking bill is not just anti-social. It’s an attack on the freedom of all technology entrepreneurs to run their businesses. In the case of Facebook, more than500 million users have already voluntarily signed up under the current model, so it’s hard to believe that any Sacramento politician, part of a government mired in debt and inefficiency, would have a better idea of how to run the enterprise.

Corbett is also spearheading another measure that spells trouble for the tech industry. Her SB 861 will “incentivize” federal regulation on “conflict minerals” used in phones and other devices. Publicly traded companies must disclose whether they use these minerals in their products and the steps they are taking to make sure that the minerals are not funding violent militias in Congo. Supporters of the measure warn of “tangible costs” for “companies who do not fulfill their obligations.”

The government does not have to prove that any company’s purchase of minerals actually aids violent militias. Companies, in effect, must prove their innocence or face “tangible costs.” As with SB 242, Silicon Valley leaders, and all Californians, should educate their lawmakers on the harmful consequences of government micromanagement.

Sonia Arrison is a fellow of technology studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

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