Page one of today’s Washington Times—above the fold—has a fascinating story indicting the White House for failing to disclose that it will collect and retain material posted by visitors to its pages on social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube. The story is fascinating because so much attention is being paid to it. (It was first reported, as an aside at least, by Major Garrett on Fox News a month ago.)
The question here is not over the niceties of the Presidential Records Act, which may or may not require collection and storage of the data. It’s over people’s expectations when they use the Internet.
Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the White House signaled that it would insist on open dealings with Internet users and, in fact, should feel obliged to disclose that it is collecting such information.
Of course, the White House is free to disclose or announce anything it wants. It might be nice to disclose this particular data practice. But is it really a breach of privacy—and, through failure to notify, transparency—if there isn’t a distinct disclosure about this particular data collection?
Let’s talk about what people expect when they use the Internet and social networking sites. Though the Internet is a gigantic copying machine, some may not know that data is collected online. They may imagine that, in the absence of notice, the data they post will not be warehoused and redistributed, even though that’s exactly what the Internet does.
There can be special problems when it is the government collecting the information. The White House’s “firstname.lastname@example.org” tip line was concerning because it asked Americans to submit information about others. There is a history of presidents amassing “enemies” lists. But this is not the complaint with White House tracking of data posted on its social networking sites.
People typically post things online because they want publicity for those things—often they want publicity for the fact that they are the ones posting, too. When they write letters, they give publicity to the information in the letter and the fact of having sent it. When they hold up signs, they seek publicity for the information on the signs, and their own role in publicizing it.
How strange that taking note of the things people publicize is taken as a violation of their privacy. And failing to notify them of the fact they will be observed and recorded is a failure of transparency.
America, for most of what you do, you do not get “notice” of the consequences. Instead, in the real world and online, you grown‐ups are “on notice” that information you put online can be copied, stored, retransmitted, and reused in countless ways. Aside from uses that harm you, you have little recourse against that after you have made the decision to release information about yourself.
The White House is not in the wrong here. If there’s a lesson, it’s that people are responsible for their own privacy and need to be aware of how information moves in the online environment.