California Social Networking Bill In Its Death Throes

In Sacramento, California, a bill that would regulate social networking is reportedly on its death bed after failing by five votes last week. The online industry and Internet users will be able to breathe a little easier this evening if the bill’s author, State Senator Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro), doesn’t find the votes needed to bring her bill back by the end of today. Unfortunately, Corbett, has pledged to keep pursuing the issue if she fails today.

Corbett’s legislation (S.B. 242) would force social networking sites to alter their privacy settings to ensure that no user’s personal information is ever made available to the public without that individual’s explicit permission. The bill’s definition of personal information encompasses names, addresses, phone numbers, locations, and global positioning coordinates. It also includes more sensitive items such as social security numbers, savings account numbers, and credit card numbers.

The scope of information covered by the legislation is especially worrisome. Most individuals’ names, addresses, and phone numbers are already a matter of public record. Why should government dictate the default sharing settings of social networks? Users who are wary about publicizing their phone number or email address aren’t required to disclose any information to social networking sites.

Besides, when you sign up for an online service and disclose personal details, you’re already opting in to sharing. Shouldn’t users assume their basic identifying information will be made public when they sign up for a social network? Social networking has the world “social” in it for a reason! If some users don’t fully appreciate the privacy risks of social networking, shouldn’t we be focused on educating those users, rather than imposing harmful mandates on an innovative young industry?

If Corbett ultimately gets her way, Californians who frequent social networking sites can look forward to many more warnings and disclaimers that few users will actually read. Such an influx of warnings would desensitize users to warnings that actually matter. If you’re about to delete your Facebook account, for instance, displaying a warning first makes good sense. Requiring users to click through a warning each time they change their profile picture or post a status update, however, is an unnecessary hassle.

A coalition of social networks and Internet companies explained their concerns about S.B. 242 in an open letter to Corbett. The letter pointed out that:

SB 242 would require social networking sites to force users to make decisions about privacy and visibility of all of their information well before they have ever used the service. Known as ‘privacy shrink wrap,’ this practice results in users clicking quickly through the available options without contextual understanding of or serious thought to the case-by-case implications of the choices being made.

The letter also argues that the social networks have a vested interest in the safety of their users’ information. After all, social networks have a lot to lose if they don’t get better on privacy. Entrepreneurs are unveiling cool new digital platforms all the time; users who place a premium on privacy will flock to companies that satisfy their privacy preferences. Remember, not too long ago MySpace was once the social networking king, but it lost out to Facebook in part because users preferred the newcomer’s privacy settings.

S.B. 242 is also a direct assault on Californian jobs, as many of the nation’s largest social networks are based in the state. The bill’s fines also look suspiciously like a revenue grab; California Senator Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) estimates that the bill would earn the state a cool $10 billion.

Let’s hope Corbett’s bill fails this week. But even if it does die, it should serve as a haunting reminder to Californians to continue being mindful of their online freedom. Shenanigans like this in the state house could have severe, unpredictable consequences.