WASHINGTON — When I was old enough to begin regularly composing letters and notes to girlfriends and others, my father told me that I should never put anything in writing that I would be embarrassed to see on the front page of a family newspaper. Over the decades I have repeated that sage advice to my own children and to dozens of other young men and women in classrooms from high school to college.
The “old man’s” warning has never been more important than in this age of Internet madness – which he never would have understood — where, to cite the late Art Linkletter, people say the “darnedest things” about themselves and others with appalling regularity and frequently dire consequences. The insecurity of this method of advanced communication compares with posting a note on the front door detailing your valuables and where you keep them. Yet millions of Americans can’t seem to resist doing it.
E-mail communication between desks that are only a few feet apart in a newsroom or office has become a regular source of tragedy for those too lazy to get up and convey their message orally. I personally know of three editors whose affairs came to light when the words of passion between him and his fellow worker were must reading for the rest of the titillated staff. But, even more seriously, messages between editors and reporters that might include words later construed as evidence of malice against a subject of an investigation have more than once resulted in disastrous consequences for a publication trying to defend itself against libel.
In my estimation the compulsive need to expose one’s most intimate and private matters to a potentially infinite number of others is the height of exhibitionism. If not that, it certainly has become social suicide for people who have found their lives invaded just by signing up for the magic of online service. Abuse has been so blatant it has promoted an outcry from thousands of account holders, Congress and advocacy groups. One wag suggested that for those who ignore all the warnings – and millions do – there should be a new service called YouBoob.
A recent case reported that a giant retailer being sued by the family of two maintenance workers burned in an explosion had used a subpoena to gain access to more than two years of information in the social networking accounts of the wife of one of the victims, none of which had anything to do with the suit. It was one of a number of examples that have brought congressional attention to the lack of personal control of these accounts in providers such as Facebook.
Recently Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, wrote Facebook and Google demanding that they cooperate with congressional investigators looking into privacy matters and Sen. Charles Schumer, D. N.Y., has called on the Federal Trade Commission to establish guidelines for the use of private information and to prohibit access without permission of the account holder, according to press reports.
All this was highly predictable in an age when in reality few things are private and the electronic mania that facilitates and feeds easy movement of the most personal information.
Dan Thomasson writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.