The Wall Street Journal has an interesting story about a rare moment of legislative censure. “In an unusual move, the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection asked a Columbia University Law School professor to censor his remarks in a hearing about online privacy legislation,” states WSJ author Jennifer Valentino-DeVries. Whose testimony was censored? Eben Moglen, Professor of Law and Legal History at Columbia University Law School, Chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center, and Director of the Software Freedom Conservancy.
Moglen’s testimony got to the heart of the problem of information sharing as it is now:
We already have a world where more than half a billion people put everything they say and do in one great big database owned by a single for profit business. […] How much surveillance is socially tolerable? How much are we prepared to abandon our traditional understanding that what we do in our daily life is nobody’s business except those with whom we choose to share?
Moglen’s prepared statement (PDF) is available at the Software Freedom Law Center and from the Wall Street Journal. His edited testimony (PDF) is available on the Committee’s website. If you’re interested in watching the whole 2+ hour hearing, you can catch it on C-Span or download it (WMV) from the Committee’s site. Note that Dr. Moglen’s testimony starts at 1 hour 37 minutes and ends at 1 hour 44 minutes.
Continuing from the Wall Street Journal,
Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes confirmed that the company had seen a copy of Mr. Moglen’s prepared remarks before Thursday… Mr. Noyes indicated that Facebook had a problem with the written remarks from the start, saying Facebook was “surprised” to see that the remarks had “nothing to do with the topic of a serious and important hearing.”
The subject of the hearing was “Do-Not-Track Legislation: Is Now the Right Time?” The testimonies of other speakers are also available on the Committee’s website.
Moglen’s point, while evidently offensive to Facebook, seems right on topic, which is essentially a question of who gets to know what about whom:
Facebook holds and controls more data about the daily lives and social interactions of half a billion people than 20th-century totalitarian governments ever managed to collect about the people they surveilled.
Moglen’s written testimony–which triggered the censure–made it clear that he sees Facebook’s so-called “privacy settings” as outright deception. Although the settings give users control over what other users and applications can see, they do nothing to provide privacy from Facebook itself. This may seem so obvious it doesn’t get mentioned–that Facebook can see what users put on Facebook–but Moglen makes a convincing argument that it needs to be mentioned, precisely because it is a risk so many are ignoring.
It would be possible to engineer a solution so that Facebook can’t see everyone’s information. Challenging, but possible. Perhaps that’s in our future.