Friday, June 06, 2008

Should Social Networks Be Regulated?

According to a new research study in the UK, 90% of people believe that there should be tighter regulation of social network sites like MySpace and Facebook. This comes at a time when the European Union is already considering regulatory legislation to police such websites, and the U.S. government may be next if John McCain has his way.

The question: Is there really a need for regulation on social networking sites, or is this just a power grab on behalf of formal governmental institutions?

This issue has certainly come up before, but the story here is that a cultural shift in attitudes may be taking place, as demonstrated by 90% of users now believing that regulation of such sites would be a positive development. Most policy calls are directed specifically at protecting privacy and raising people's awareness "about what can happen to information once it is voluntarily put into the public domain."

So what would be the possible consequences of regulating social networking websites? ReadWriteWeb sums them up for us. First of all, "despite what may be good intentions on the part of legislators, having government and/or regulatory bodies get involved with how social networks operate could be a very slippery slope, both in the U.S. and worldwide". The implication is that once the government has full authority to regulate social networking sites, what's to stop it from then asserting that same regulatory authority over the entire Web? Maybe you think this would be a good thing, maybe a bad thing, but it unquestionably flies in the face of the libertarian ethos that has permeated the Internet from its beginning.

Second, another side effect of regulation could be a significant change in behavior. A case in Germany serves as a cautionary tale on this point. "Since the beginning of 2008, communication providers are required to record electronic communication - who communicated with whom, but not what was said... The problem with this is that the knowledge that communication is recorded has begun to change behavior - 11% of the people surveyed have already abstained from using phones, cell phones or email in certain occasions, especially in private matters like when contacting drug counselors, psychotherapists, or marriage counselors because of this data retention".

Heavy-handed regulation of social networking sites could potentially alter people's behavior enough to kill off those sites altogether. Again, whether you think that would be a good thing or a bad thing, keep in mind that Facebook is a company valued at around $14 BILLION, so killing it off would be a pretty big deal.

In response to the new research study, people, at least online, have been chiming in with the usual libertarian talking-points against government regulation. But perhaps the best comment comes from "Si" who asks, "Shouldn't alarm bells be ringing from the very fact that we can predict a downturn in users if they were more aware of what they're getting in to?"

For some additional good reading, scroll down the RWW article to see a heated exchange between a mother who blames MySpace for her daughter being drugged, raped, and "forced into an abortion", and a counter-response by a libertarian who argues that it's not MySpace's fault, but rather that blame primarily lies with the mother herself - and makes the case for personal responsibility. It's an extreme, but also good representation of both sides in this debate.

In the past, Internet evangelists have consistently maintained that the government should stay away from meddling with the Web, and that attitude has largely served cyberspace well. However, if the overwhelming majority of people actually start to demand regulation, then it would be hard for any fan of democracy to suggest otherwise.


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