City of glass houses: how a lack of online privacy shapes "acceptable behaviour"

i-0b2ae6ca9d8d05930a3afabb025bfbdf-tan.pngMika Tan is a 30-something biochemistry graduate working in the United States. She also happens to be a successful porn actress. Tan helped me out when I was looking for a security expert to provide some context on an article about hacking luxury cars; since then I've been following her on Twitter, because, hey, nothing livens up a Twitter stream like a little gangbang gossip in the mornings.

One of the recurring themes on Tan's list of bugbears is her ongoing strife with Facebook, which repeatedly suspends her account for breaching rules on graphic content. This opens up an important question about how social networks fit into the wider community.

Society as a whole has long permitted a tiered set of privacy levels. How many of these phrases have you heard used to give context to a personal activity: in broad daylight, in public, behind closed doors, in your own home, in the bedroom? We accept that drinking in the street is questionable, but drinking indoors is not; that nudity is permissable in your home but not in public. Our location, or more precisely, the people whose company we are in, define the standards of behaviour that we adhere to.

How is that reflected in the online world? Social networks have been slow to recognise the importance of tiered levels of privacy, often opting for binary public/private approach. Even the most dominant, Facebook, only recently came to understand that "friends" was too broad of a category to encompass all the relationships between its users. Currently it operates a crude three-tier privacy system: you can choose to broadcast activities to friends, friends of friends, or everyone. Even so, Facebook doesn't let you set everything to friends only - the management knows this would allow users to annex their profiles completely, becoming islands in the social network. Like parents pushing their children onto the dancefloor at the school disco, Facebook demands that you socialise.

This is an important point. Social networks judge you by "community standards" of their own devising. Infringe upon these rules and you'll be booted out. In a true social network, your behaviour would be controlled by the true community standard - i.e. the people around you. Offensive language, baudy content, aggressive behaviour, all would pass if those were the standards of the company you kept. Instead, Facebook and social networks choose to apply blanket standards which themselves are dictated by the lowest common denominator, the public at large. I might see my home page on a social network as my private space (MySpace?), but the providers see it as a node in a public network. In trying to provide both, they have effectively built a city of glass houses. Behavioural norms that should be set by close acquiantances are instead measured at the public level.


The offending image

This might not seem like much of a problem to some. Privacy is non-existent, they say, and you will be judged for what happens online as if it was done in full view of the public. Not only is this a flawed logic, it's an incredibly problematic one when you consider that websites like Facebook are striving to corner the market on online identity. Facebook connect, Microsoft Live ID, and a host of others want to be your sole identity online, allowing you to prove who you are across a range of sites and services. Because her email was tagged as pornographic, Tan's Amazon and Paypal accounts suspended by puritanical service providers, effectively excluding her from carrying out legitimate business online. With government bodies such as councils integrating their services with Facebook it becomes very important that online access is equal to all.

Where does that leave people like Mika Tan? She has a career that many find objectionable, but one that whose legality is enshrined in law. In the real world, we can accomodate mixed views on pornography by establishing standards to where it appears - in the privacy of homes, beyond the reach of minors. Evidently social networks have issues handling the same plurality online.


What then becomes of people who do not fit into the "community standards" demanded by social networks? Should they be excluded? Do private companies have the right to do that when they establish themselves as public gathering places? When James Bull was ejected from the John Snow pub in Soho for kissing his male companion, it triggered a storm of controversy and a retaliatory kiss-in. The message was clear: it was the community, not the landlords, who set the standard for what was deemed acceptable behaviour.

Tiered privacies are what allowed our society to function as a whole. The old dinner party adage of not talking sex, politics or religion encapsulates this perfectly - we don't avoid these topics because they are inherently offensive, we do it because we accept people will have irrevocably different but equally valid views.

If we are entering an age of singular online identities, is it time to protect those differences in attitude? When Francis and Susanne Wilkinson refused to allow a gay couple to stay in their B&B, they were prosecuted under anti-discrimination laws. The Wilkinsons' community standards, like so many others, were not in line with the rest of the world, and for this reason it was necessary for Parliament to enshrine equal access in law. Does your ability to use Facebook need similar legal protection?

Or is it simply time to demand a new standard of acceptable behaviour for what happens in the privacy of your own home page?

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