You may want to think twice before sending out that next tweet or updating your Facebook status. New lawsuits are challenging how much of the personal data that companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Google have compiled about you must be released to law enforcement authorities.
One of those suits names the City of New York, which recently subpoenaed the Twitter account of an Occupy Wall Street protester facing a criminal trial. That subpoena asked Twitter to bring to the Feb. 8 trial "any and all user information including email address, as well as any and all tweets posted for the period 9/15/2011 to 12/31/2011." (The rest of the subpoena can be found at the Scribd page of CabinCr3w.)
The lawsuit raises the question of whether it is ethical for social networking sites to hand over the online communication records of users. Neil Richards, a Washington University professor who specializes in privacy law, said that since there is not an extensive series of laws set up to protect against invasion of privacy, a social media user's main protection comes from the companies that hold the records.
"By and large, this data should remain private, and online companies should keep the data confidential and not share it any more broadly than we as users and speakers want it to be shared," said Richards. "Records of our communications involve our intellectual privacy, and to allow the state to study our private thoughts and words is to allow monitoring of our civil liberties on an Orwellian scale."
Richards warned that a dangerous precedent might be set if companies stopped protecting the confidentiality of users.
"In our digital world, the battles for civil liberties are increasingly being fought on the front lines of social media, and social media companies are our first line of defense against the kind of Big Brother-style surveillance our traditions reject," Richards said. "In the absence of stronger laws, the positions these companies take have a real impact on the practical state of our civil liberties. I'm very glad that Twitter is siding with its users as citizens in these debates rather than the government."
"Is That Ethical?" is a BusinessNewsDaily series in which we examine the ethics of business and acknowledge the ethical dilemmas businesses face every day.
Reach BusinessNewsDaily staff writer David Mielach at Dmielach@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @D_M89.