Hypocrisy in politics is nothing new. But Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) set a new standard for it last week when he and three of his colleagues attacked social networking giant Facebook over its privacy practices. In a scathing letter, the senators demanded that Facebook change certain features to give users greater “control over their information.” The real threat to privacy, however, comes not from innovative companies like Facebook, but from posturing politicians.
Naturally, politicians saw this controversy as a chance to score political points by getting involved. Sen. Schumer and company asked federal regulators to “recommend” privacy guidelines for social networking sites, and are reportedly on the verge of introducing legislation to regulate online privacy.
One moment, Sen. Schumer implores Facebook to change its privacy policies. The next, he’s leading the push in Congress to require all Americans to have national ID cards. Unlike social networking sites, which are entirely voluntary, Americans will not be able to “opt out” of Schumer’s national ID scheme. (Schumer’s proposal even requires citizens’ biometric information, like an iris scan or fingerprint.)
Perhaps Sen. Schumer could use a dose of his own privacy medicine.
National ID cards are just the tip of the iceberg. From lost laptops to warrantless wiretaps, the federal government is America’s single biggest privacy violator. The private sector, on the other hand, must compete to win over consumers. When companies make privacy mistakes, their customers go elsewhere. When bureaucrats mess up, their agencies get bigger budgets. In their drive to regulate Facebook’s privacy practices, Schumer and company ignore this crucial distinction.
Ultimately, social networking is not about walling off information, but about sharing it with others. In the fast-moving information age, balancing the competing goals of privacy and information sharing is difficult, if not impossible—especially for lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Consumer preferences are evolving rapidly, fueled by new social networking technologies that are changing the way we share, organize, and use information.
As social networking has taken off in recent years, it has become clear that many people want to share personal information—with strangers as well as with friends. Millions now publish their every thought on Twitter, available for the world to see. And Foursquare, the latest Web phenomenon, encourages users to publicly post their whereabouts in order to compete over who can “check in” at hot night spots the most.
It is hardly unreasonable for Facebook to want to keep up with this trend. In fact, the site’s new privacy settings, which encourage users to share their interests and hobbies, may make Facebook more popular among consumers. But Facebook’s recent changes could just as easily flop.
Either way, government’s proper role is to enforce voluntary privacy policies, not dictate them in advance. Sometimes, mistakes will be made. When firms get it wrong, they will suffer legal and financial consequences. Users themselves can make a big difference—in 2007, Facebook launched an advertising system called Beacon, but quickly backed off when many users revolted.
But when politicians threaten innovative Internet companies with government mandates, they undermine the experimentation that has been so crucial to America’s incredible high-tech achievements. The United States is home to innovators like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo! precisely because our government has largely avoided regulating the Internet.
The information age is still in its infancy. Most digital frontiers remain unexplored. They will stay that way if politicians deny companies like Facebook the freedom to experiment with novel approaches to sharing information online. If Sen. Schumer and his colleagues really want to safeguard Americans’ privacy, they should focus on reforming the federal government’s own invasive policies.