Congressional committee attempts censorship of professor’s criticism of Facebook

A chair of a Congressional committee cautioned a law professor about to speak to the committee  to refrain from personal attacks against any companies or company employees. -db

Onlne Media Daily
December 3, 2010
By Wendy Davis

Columbia Law professor Eben Moglen seemed to have touched a nerve on Capitol Hill this week when he touted the social networking start-up Diaspora, which he advises, while simultaneously bashing Facebook, in his written testimony.

Immediately before Moglen was set to testify at the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, Rep. Zachary Space (D-Ohio), chided the professor. “Congress tries to foster highest level of decorum,” Space lectured. “I would ask you to avoid personal attacks against any companies or company employees.'”

These remarks spurred a flurry of tweets from curious industry observers who wanted to know which company Moglen had criticized. That question took a surprisingly long time to answer, thanks to a highly questionable decision to remove Moglen’s prepared statement from the subcommittee’s Web site.

After a round of complaints on Twitter about the apparent attempt to toss Moglen’s remarks down the memory hole, privacy expert Chris Soghoian posted a link to a pdf of the testimony hosted by the Software Freedom Law Center, where Moglen serves as director.

Shortly afterward, Moglen’s original statement reappeared on the House Subcommittee site.

What did the professor write that was deemed worthy of censorship? For one thing, he called Facebook’s privacy settings “mere deception, a simple act of deliberate confusion.”

“These ‘privacy settings’ merely determine what one user can see of another user’s private data. The grave, indeed fatal, design error in social networking services like Facebook isn’t that Johnny can see Billy’s data. It’s that the service operator has uncontrolled access to everybody’s data, regardless of the so-called ‘privacy settings.’ ”

Secondly, he pointed out that Facebook has access to vast amounts of data about people. “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,” he wrote.

While the remarks might have fallen somewhat outside the parameters of a narrow discussion about do-not-track mechanisms, Moglen’s testimony certainly bears on larger questions of online privacy. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to talk meaningfully about online privacy without bearing in mind Facebook’s snafus — like the defunct Beacon platform, which told users about their friends’ purchases.

With Congress increasingly turning its attention to Internet privacy, discussions about individual companies seem inevitable. Hopefully future witnesses won’t hold back their legitimate concerns about specific businesses due to fear that their testimony, like Moglen’s, will be found lacking.

Copyright 2010 MediaPost Communications     FAC Content Use Policy