Too Big To Curtail: Facebook, Google, and the Data Law Void

Posted by · October 1, 2012 10:01 am

Honest PhoneIn the aftermath of the allegedly “false” Facebook message debacle and the distasteful anti-Muslim movie published on YouTube – whose publicity has since incited violent protests across the Middle East – many eyes are now appropriately fixed on two of the most influential companies of our time.

As users are left with yet another reason to be wary of the considerable latitude Facebook has with their personal information and while others wait to see how Google will enforce YouTube’s terms of use against one of its viral videos, one thing seems to be increasingly clear: The rule of law has taken a back seat when it comes to the stuff that we say and do online.

“Combined, Facebook and Google have a reach that’s bigger than any of the world’s governments,” writes technology journalist and Huffington Post blogger Larry Magid in a discussion of online speech. “[S]o decisions made by these companies have enormous weight, even though they have nothing to do with the rule of law.”

In other words, the rule – and hence, the role – of law is no longer what it once was, at least not when it comes to the modes of communication that rule in this increasingly digital age.

Laws, which are crafted, enforced, and interpreted under public auspices and are intended to provide a framework that is both consistent and publicly accountable, are hardly the final word when it comes to our online activity. Instead, the economically driven interests of unaccountable private institutions has become the final word.

And while the benefits of this government-business arrangement undoubtedly swing both ways (case in point: retroactive immunity for telecoms wiretapping on the government’s behalf), the long-term implications of the status quo certainly leave one group most vulnerable. Just as government offers of legal immunity to private companies willing to do what it legally cannot serves to circumvent the most sacrosanct of public rights, the dearth of definitive data laws protecting online speech and privacy effectively yields the same toxic relationship.

Rather than being held accountable to standards set by the public institutions of the countries in which they operate (no, I’m not calling for government censorship), companies like Google and Facebook are left to determine for themselves the limitations of free speech and personal privacy. Unlike public officials, who can be voted out of office for failing to serve the needs of the people, the executives who make and enforce their own rules about user speech and informational privacy are virtually untouchable when users feel their rights are being violated.

Of course, one reaction guaranteed to result from this criticism is the age-old argument, “If you don’t like it, don’t use it,” or the classic, “Nobody’s forcing you to use [Facebook, Google, etc.].”

However, it’s almost an absolute certainty that these same reactionaries would not be so lenient if their phone carriers began bleeping out parts of their conversations or publishing the contents of these discussions for all to see. If that was happening, one wouldn’t be expected to simply stop using the phone, an indisputably essential mode of communication. Because of the legally sanctioned monopolies that these services enjoy in most neighborhoods, there’s no list of competitors to choose from either.

In other words, in exchange for being handed completely unchallenged access to consumers, telecoms like Comcast and AT&T are reasonably expected to maintain standards that uphold the free speech and privacy rights of their users.

The same can also be said of internet giants like Google and Facebook. Wielding national and global influence that causes all other search engines and social sites to pale in comparison, these groups have effectively created for themselves the same monopolistic power described above. They are not swayed by the fear of losing users the way that a company facing real competition would be. Sure, Facebook isn’t the only social networking site, but if there’s nobody on the other sites, there might as well not be, at least not for the purposes being discussed here.

Likewise, the abilities to access information quickly (online search) and communicate it on a wide-reaching scale (social media) have become (or are becoming) so imperative for both personal and business use that to be left with the Hobson’s choice of either surrendering essential freedoms or going without is completely unjustified.

“As a result [of this global reach],” Magid continues, “it’s incumbent on these companies to treat speech [and for the purposes of this conversation, informational privacy] with an enormous amount of reverence.”

Until such a responsibility is legally instated, however, it would be naive to expect such reverence to extend any further than would be financially rewarding to these unaccountable institutions.

For more on free speech and privacy with Facebook and Google…

  • Sue

    Per the statement below, my one comment on this is that we pay to use the phone via AT&T or Comcast or Verizon, etc. Who pays for their use of Facebook or Google? Not agreeing with release of info, but I think people realistically need to have a different set of expectations about getting something for free versus paying for something. Just my two cents on this.
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