Ultimately, these privacy concerns do not turn on the decisions of one social networking company like Facebook, or what its future owners may do. The architecture of these sites already facilitates all kinds of surveillance of unsuspecting users by the public. Employers check Facebook to vet job applicants, for example, and some have advised users to change their profiles or photos during the application process, as the Stanford Daily reported last year. A 2005 survey found that one out of four employers has rejected applicants based on research via search engines. Campus police increasingly review social networking sites to investigate crimes. Arkansas's John Brown University expelled a student after administrators discovered Facebook pictures of him dressed in drag last year, a violation of the school's Christian conduct code. And a Secret Service officer paid a dorm visit to University of Oklahoma sophomore Saul Martinez based on a comment he posted on the Facebook group Bush Sucks.
Even if this generation of Internet users is truly developing a "new privacy" concept that prioritizes nuanced control, they largely fail on their own terms. Most users do not exercise any real authority over their information; they accept default exposure settings, post to huge networks and transfer ownership of their social media productions to entertainment businesses. Thus "control" devolves to the thousands of people in their networks and the business models of ambitious companies. The entire social network ecosystem, with its detailed records, pictures and videos of formative years, can completely change on a company's whim. Most users are left relying on the kindness of strangers and the benevolence of business.
A simple way to address one of Facebook's privacy problems is to ensure that users can make informed choices. Taking a page from the consumer protection movement, Congress could simply require social networking sites to display their broadcasting reach prominently when new users post information. Just as the government requires standardized nutrition labels on packaged food, a privacy label would reveal the "ingredients" of social networking. For example, the label might tell users: "The photos you are about to post will become Facebook's property and be visible to 150,000 people--click here to control your privacy settings."
This disclosure requirement would push Facebook to catch up with its customers. After all, users disclose tons of information about themselves. Why shouldn't the company open up a bit, too?
Facebook's invisible audiences should also stop hiding. Responsible institutions that choose to monitor users (and minors) on the site, such as schools and employers, have a special obligation to inform users and parents of the practice.
In the end, social networking sites are wildly popular precisely because they disseminate information so effectively. Posting to a network is easier than e-mailing individuals, and usually more fun. One bright side is that these sites' popularity dispels the recurring complaint that the web is merely an incubator for like-minded people to isolate themselves, associating only with the people and ideas that confirm their beliefs. Young people are doing just the opposite. Their favorite websites are about real people in the real world--not just their like-minded best friends but hundreds of acquaintances from different facets of their lives.
The problem, of course, is that playing with reality online is riskier than playing with video games and anonymous screen names. Young people are recording their lives in minute detail, enabling unprecedented experiences, exposure and evidence that will outlast their youth. Social networking is a free service, but abdicating control of personal information, photos, writing, videos and memories seems like a high price to pay.