ITS 321: Legal and Ethical Issues in Information Technology

Lesson 8: Social Networking


Chapter 9 discusses some social web sites and social contact technologies. Objectives that are stated to be important to this lesson:

  1. Social networks and their users
  2. Ethical issues regarding social network products

Chapter 9 in the third edition began with a description of how a social networking tool, Twitter, was used by protesters in Iran to communicate with people involved in their movement. This article on Slate continues the theme, mentioning the use of Twitter and Facebook in other countries as well, during what some called the Arab Spring of 2011. Some countries saw large changes, others did not. Note that the technologies used were used where they were available and affordable. Technology is not an answer if it is unattainable by people who might use it. They might use any means of communication that is not blocked or monitored.

The text discusses social networking web sites, giving several examples on pages 356 and 357. The sites listed are all currently live in one fashion or another. The last text mentioned which seems to have been absorbed by MySpace; is now part of The last text said that 35% of people over 18 have a profile on some social site, and that 65% of teenagers have one. The current version says that users over 50 increased from 22% of that population in 2009 to 42% in 2010. A suggestion is made that "older" users are connecting to people from their past.

As a means of finding people, the social network sites leave something to be desired. Facebook, for example, has millions of users but it also has some useful privacy features that prevent you from finding a page that is locked down. As an experiment, I looked for someone whose page I knew was locked down to Friends only. I found her ID by looking at the Friends lists of other users who I guessed were connected to her. I still could not get to her Facebook page because it is only open to friends, and there was no button to request a Friend relationship with her. What good is a page if the only people who can see it are the people who have already been allowed to see it? That page is useful for private groups, like the protesters mentioned in the beginning of the chapter, like a family who wants some privacy from others, or like a developer who is not ready to have the world see the page yet. Not everything posted on the web has to be for everyone in the world to see.

The text lists several kinds of advertising that apply to social networking sites. Most types would have no ethical issues associated with them, unless some other aspect of the ad or advertiser created it.

  • direct advertising - marketing to viewers based on the demographic groups they belong to
  • advertising to a network of friends - sending an ad to people on someone's friend list with the lead that the lister is recommending the product in the ad; the ethical question is whether this is a real endorsement by the lister, a lie from the advertiser, or a permissioned use of the lister's list (which may still not be a real endorsement)
  • advertising to groups - people tend to frequent sites or pages that please them;
    The text discusses the Facebook page for the Coca-Cola Company, which started as a page made by fans, and has since been taken over by Coke. I note that some links on that page take you to a web site that is maintained by Coca-Cola and more elaborate than the Facebook page. In a way, the Facebook page is a gateway to the larger site.
  • company owned social network site - most company web sites provide forums for questions and discussions of products; the example given of the Dell site (Ideastorm) is still up and running, still asking for feedback from users.

The text moves on to discuss the fact that prospective employers may find information on a job applicant's social network page that could cause the employer to screen out the applicant. Information about unlawful activities, or negative remarks about a current or past employer are examples of content that surveyed employers have found unacceptable.

As an ethical and legal issue, a person screening job applicants must not screen on information that is protected by anti-discrimination laws. Note the passage on page 361 describing information that is not valid as screening material, and you will realize that this information is not valid to use in a job interview either. The text mentions a survey of college graduates who learned that employers might be looking at their social network pages. The survey reports that 47% of respondents changed their pages once they started looking for work. This may indicate the number of people who post inappropriate information on their pages to begin with. A teacher once told me never to write anything that I did not want an enemy to read. Perhaps Mr. Pawloski's advice should be repeated to more people.

The next topic relevant to our discussion starts on page 364. Social networks, unlike web sites, are meant to include feedback from readers and continued interaction among them. This leads to some issues that do not come up without two way communication:

  • cyberbullying - I am surprised that the text defines this term as an abuse of one minor by another minor (or group of them). The link above goes to a discussion on Wikipedia that does not place this limitation on the term. The remote nature of the acts of the bully may make it seem safer to commit them, as does the lack of personal knowledge of the victim. Consider these two clips about "real" bullying:
    Conversation 1
    Conversation 2
    Do we feel more sympathy for Leonard in the second clip than for the unmet victim described in the first clip? If we do, is it because we know him, because he is pitiful, or because we see his reactions to the memory of his mistreatment? When we see the reaction of a victim, it is a different experience from the anonymous mistreatment of someone over a network.
  • cyberstalking - The author calls this the "adult version of cyberbullying" (page 366). Maybe, but the aspect of "unwanted advances" puts this in a different category in my mind. In fact, that phrase may not be clear to anyone who is not familiar with the author's meaning. Several of the examples in the text are crimes that already have names: invasion of privacy, trespassing, vandalism, violation of terms of service. The stalker may or may not have a sexual or romantic relationship as a goal.
  • encounters with predators - Again, the author focuses the discussion on protection of minors. They are not the only potential victims of sexual (or other types of) predators, but that group of predators gets the most press. Note the statement on page 367 that MySpace removed about 90,000 registered sex offenders from its site in 2009. One wonders about the potential infringement on first amendment rights of this action if the persons removed had not done anything on the web site to otherwise cause removal.
  • inappropriate additions (uploads) to your pages - The text discusses placing material on your own page that is inappropriate, or violates the user agreement with the provider. In some cases, social network sites may also present an opportunity for others to post material that appears on your page. This would create an additional need to edit the site content on a regular basis.