The New York Times announced today that Facebook has agreed to the Federal Trade Commission that it will pay a settlement on user’s privacy. The federal government had accused Facebook of “’unfair and deceptive’ business practices” when in December 2009 changes were made to privacy settings without warning users or gaining their consent. These changes made public information that users had designated as private and additionally exposed users preferences to advertisers each time a user clicked on an ad. Facebook is now liable to pay $16,000 a day for each allegation if the settlement is violated in the future.
According to Alexis de Tocqueville, there are divisions in roles and duties between the individual, civil society and state. In lecture, we discussed the idea that within the boundaries of the individual and civil society, there might be religion, recreation and arts & entertainment, and all of these things counted as freedom. On the other hand, the state and government operates within a separate boundary that is dominated by force.
Knowing this, it would seem that users’ participation on Facebook could be labeled as either having to do with self-interest or a type of recreation. Facebook may be engaged in as a means of self-expression, and therefore it fits into the boundaries of the individual. Additionally, some users may utilize Facebook as a pass-time, and therefore it is a form of recreation or entertainment within civil society. Because Facebook is operating within the realm of either/or the individual and civil society, it would seem that it is separated from the government. If Facebook is out of the bounds of the government, then it would thereby not be subject to force. Yet, the Federal Trade Commission, acting as a regent for the government, went after Facebook with the law and succeeded in procuring a settlement. This seems like a violation of the boundaries that Tocqueville laid out.
Tocqueville also said that Americans are primarily self-interested and therefore want to engage in civil society and government because it will protect our individual freedom. If this is true, then perhaps by participating in civil society and government generally, individuals give the government permission to enter their sphere of self-interest. In that situation, it would be acceptable for the government to interfere in matters of self-interest and entertainment like Facebook.
While the government may have been looking out for the rights of individuals in filing allegations against Facebook, it still seems like an intrusion into the personal and social sphere—which should be outside of the law. When people join Facebook, they are already signifying to society that their personal information is accessible, so it seems unnecessary that the government become involved.
Do you believe that the Federal Trade Commission is entitled to make allegations against Facebook of this nature? Is it the duty of the state to regulate information that lies in the realm of and between the individual and civil society? Or on the contrary, is the regulation of our liberties exactly what the government is supposed to be doing?