The Facebook Effect vertical.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Once upon a time, your private life was private. You pretty much controlled what
information you wanted to provide friends, acquaintances and potential
employers. You chose to let some people be your best friends and know a lot
about you, to have other people be casual acquaintances who would know little,
or to let strangers know nothing. If the person meeting you for a date or the
person interviewing you for a job wanted to know more than you let on, the only
real alternative was to hire a private investigator, which is pretty burdensome
Of course, people could and would judge you on what you
chose to reveal, and a person who chose to be too close-lipped could find
himself without a second date or without a job. But you were still in control of
The Internet changed all that. First it was Google. All
kinds of incidental information – including a lot of things that are
fundamentally public information that a lawabiding private investigator could
easily have obtained – is now instantly found with the press of a button. (Of
course it still matters if the subject’s name is Asher Meir, of which there are
only a few, or John Anderson, of whom there are scores just on Wikipedia.)
Googling a date or a job prospect may take away some of the mystery, but it
became so easy that for many it seemed negligent not to.
Next came the
social-networking sites such as Facebook. Now things that you really only meant
to reveal to your best friends have become accessible to total strangers,
without even needing to pry. Of course, you can always just not use
But Facebook is a useful way of communicating with friends, and
keeping it off limits to strangers takes work.
One possible solution to
this conundrum is to regulate the networks themselves.
There are pros and
cons of regulating the default privacy settings of Facebook and other social
The German government is now considering a variation of this:
They are proposing a law that would limit the scope of searches employers could
use when considering job applicants. They would be allowed to use
general-purpose public information as well as information on jobnetworking
sites. But they would draw the line at social-networking sites.
this proposal makes a lot of sense because the kind of private information found
on Facebook is a “public good,” meaning that providing it to many people is no
more expensive than providing it to one person. As the ancient rabbinic
expression says, “A lamp for one is a lamp for a hundred.”
But in this
case it is a public bad. I would really prefer to publicize this information to
only a select group of people, but doing so is burdensome. The area of public
goods, and public bads, is a classic area where markets fail and where the
coercive power of governments can make a real contribution.
question that the lawmakers will have to deal with is whether employers require
prospective employees to disclose this information as a condition of
This is a different question because prospective employees
can always refuse, and the law would still have teeth by giving an advantage to
companies that don’t request this information.
There is a case for
denying employers the right to base hiring decisions on certain kinds of
information. For example, there is a public interest in avoiding race
discrimination, so it is forbidden to take race into account in hiring. Some,
but not all, jurisdictions forbid discrimination based on political belief.
Again, there is a public interest in allowing people to enrich the public sphere
with their political views without fear of retaliation in the job
I believe there is a public interest in allowing people to keep
information about their private lives completely private. The alternative would
either be a chilling effect that keeps people from legitimate activities that
employers might view as risky, or a wasteful expenditure of resources in trying
to keep these activities secret.
The German government’s new proposal is
an interesting and promising new approach in the struggle to restore to
individuals the power to control access to their private
firstname.lastname@example.org Asher Meir is research director at
the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the
Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).