'Your 37 friends are waiting', says the Facebook e-mail which I have just received. They’re waiting for me to accept their friend request. That is, for me to share personal information, photos of me and my loved ones, and other bits of info which six months from now I wish I hadn’t.
I have no qualms about 30 or 32 of them. But the rest? Why should I share my personal details with people I don’t know, I barely know, I know just by sight, or I’ve lost touch with? And what criteria do I use to 'accept' or 'reject' friends? We don’t even realise any more how horrible these two actions sound in real life.
That’s the thing though. This is the online world. The world which exposes us and our realities to everyone, including people we don’t know, and others which you could say are potential threats. Maybe I’m paranoid?
Maybe… But if every young person with access to social networking sites could be half as concerned about privacy and sharing of personal information, perhaps it would make pedophiles’ life harder, knowing there are fewer preys. It might diminish incidents in which the schoolboy or schoolgirl find out their online friend was older and more sinister than what he/she professed to be. It might reinstall trust in some parents who are terrified to even ask their children whether they have online profiles, lest they discover an unknown chapter in their child’s life (and so life goes on, living in denial).
I’m not suggesting that young people should not have access to these sites. Or that parents should sit next to them while they endlessly browse friends’ profiles and upload to their own.
What I’m saying is that everyone should be critical about what information is uploaded – what can and cannot, or should and should not, be posted online. Young people should be taught that uploading photos of themselves in provocative poses is not only inappropriate, but reckless and dangerous. That before sharing photos from the previous weekend they spent at a friend’s house, they may need to ask that friend’s and the house owner’s permission. That tagging is not always appreciated, and if it is, it should still be done sensibly and sensitively.
The law certainly criminalises pedophile, pornography, and other offences which have found their way in criminal codes over the past few years. But certain behaviour cannot be criminalised, simply because it falls short of being remotely criminal.
Yet, this kind of behaviour can still land anyone in trouble. Last year, Lady Shelley Sawers posted information about their children, and the location of their flat – and photos of her now MI6 chief husband wearing Speedos – on her Facebook. A few months ago, many said that Unite’s joint general secretary Derek Simpson may have posted a tweet too many during sensitive negotiations between British Airways and union representing the cabin crew. Last week, an Indian school suspended a student, for posting rude remarks about his teacher, and his 15 classmates, for egging him on.
It’s also a kind of behaviour which Google boss Eric Schmidt says may lead young people to have to change their names in order to escape their previous online activity. He said he feared that young people 'did not understand the consequences of having so much personal information about them online'.
If we really have to, we should at least exercise more caution and more diligence. Being critical and sensible about the details we post could spare us uncomfortable situations. Being careful about whose ‘friend requests’ to accept could reduce instances where personal information might be viewed by unwelcomed acquaintances or strangers. Taking the time to stop and think before irrationally and hastily posting that tweet or comment could save us from being sacked, or from the embarrassment of public apologies.
Maybe I’ll just accept half of those friend requests today.
If you’d like to learn more about Privacy and Data Protection, An Introduction to Internet Governance addresses issues and legislation on pp. 141-144.
If you’d like to learn more about Child Safety Online, An Introduction to Internet Governance addresses issues and challenges on pp. 150-152.