Over the past decade, or nearly all of it, I recall many conversations that began with a person complaining, “The PATRIOT Act has destroyed our Bill of Rights!” I would inquire, “How?” “It invades my privacy, man!” “Do you have anything to hide?” “No. But my business is mine not just for anyone to see!” “What are you doing on your laptop computer?” “Updating my status on Facebook.com so everyone who looks at my profile knows exactly what I’m doing at this very second… What were we talking about?” “Oh, how the PATRIOT Act lets the government know exactly what you’re doing at this very second.” “Right, man! That is total bullshit, man!”
I could rest my case but I like confrontation. This starkest of contrasts is better than when the person in line ahead of me at Starbucks seethed over surging gas prices and then paid the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline for a Mint Mocha Chip Frappaccino blended coffee with Chocolate Whipped Cream.
In the wake of September 11, 2001, The Bush Administration passed the USA PATRIOT Act written, mostly, by Viet Dinh. The name of the Act is an acronym which fully reads “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.” Obvious. Its aim was to provide appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism. Again, obvious. So if the aim of this Act was to prevent terrorism then why would any American complain?
Well, many Americans, 67% according to a 2003 Gallup Poll, said “the government should not take steps to prevent terrorism if those step[s] would violate their basic civil liberties.” It was a common point of fear that the newly instated PATRIOT Act would allow the U.S. government to abuse powers that would make Big Brother drool. I vividly remember the conversations during which friends exclaimed this was the first step to having virtually no privacy except the thoughts inside your mind. The government could read transcripts of your comments to friends or examine surveillance pictures taken of you without your knowledge. I mean, They could even look at what books you read!
Then in 2004 a new website named Facebook.com was created and launched by Mark Zuckerberg that would popularize a little something called ‘social-networking’. Social networking is a vital practice, even a science for some sociologists who claimed that through the network theory societies could be improved. Problems solved faster, organizations tighter, alliances more efficient, even on a national level. Now social networking, thanks to the likes of Facebook.com and MySpace.com, is a term that is related to websites that allow users to browse through the very intimate profiles of millions of people. According to a recent estimate from PCMag.com, there were 70 million Americans on Facebook.com and 70 million Americans on MySpace.com.
These numbers are staggering. They are not a majority of the population but they may be one day as the numbers are continuously growing. So what does a profile consist of? It is a page where your comments to and from friends are visible for all to see and where pictures of you can be posted by anyone and viewed by anyone. Oh, and they even ask you to list your favorite books. Sound familiar?
While proponents of the sites may say that all this is readily avoidable by taking measures of privacy like blocking your page to strangers there are bountiful examples of these sites harming unsuspecting people personally, professionally and even financially. Just ask Grant Raphael who had to pay $43,700 to a former colleague after the High Court in London ruled he had invaded the privacy of and defamed the victim. The victim had no involvement with that page and yet Raphael personally injured him with it. Just as in the recent case of a school aged boy whose mother would not allow him to create a Facebook page. But some bullies at school created one for him and posted derogatory remarks for him and permanently scarred his school boy experience. The examples are endless.
These social networking sites are places where we can frequently see the picture of a college girl who had too much to drink and flashed her civil liberties at someone with a camera who then posted the picture on their page. Anyone in the world can see that picture, at least until the college girl sees it and pleads the poster to take it down. But I right-clicked + saved it. We all did.
So besides giving us great background images for our desktops, these websites do have their upsides. For businesses, musicians, actors, stand up comics and politicians the outreach to the population is enormous. But what does that outreach also mean? It represents the ease of exposure that every user faces. A catch-twenty-two of world wide proportions.
In light of this new developing online trend the United States Government could consider repealing the PATRIOT Act of 2001 and just opening up a Facebook.com account! There would be a new government branch named the Ministry of Social Networking that would put posters all around that had the infamous picture of Uncle Sam who now “WANTS YOU--TO ACCEPT HIS FRIEND REQUEST!” And you know the new friend request from some guy holding his shirt over his face and flexing his muscles? That is the United States military.
Now, I am not trying to incite a moral panic with this article, I am simply trying to illuminate some worrying contradictions I see in the public’s infatuation with letting the entire world wide web know anything about them. If I was trying to incite a moral panic, which I am not, I would, perhaps, maybe, possibly suggest that the timing of Facebook.com’s launch is a little peculiar. In 2003 the majority of Americans did not want the government to be able to know anything about them. The PATRIOT Act was catching heat. And then, in 2004, a website is launched that profiles every American down to the books they read? It is not an invasion of privacy, it is an implosion of privacy. Mark Zuckerberg even sounds like a fake name. But I’m just saying…
As for now, I guess the only way to protect your civil liberties is to make your profile private and block it from the public domain’s view. And DO NOT accept random friend requests. Because you know that creepy old guy who keeps poking you? That’s the American Government.