Privacy Wanes When Bloggers are Muzzled
How much privacy do we have when people can be fired from their jobs because they were blogging? eSecurityPlanet columnist Ray Everett-Church says this harkens back to dark days.
Make that ''former'' Google employee.
It seems that less than two weeks after signing aboard at the darling of Silicon Valley, which was fresh from its IPO and still quite full of itself, Mr. Jen got himself summarily canned. His heinous crime? Hogging the creamer in the coffee room? Too much trash-talk at the foosball table? Nope.
Mr. Jen was caught blogging!
Troutgirl not withstanding, if you think there's something fishy about these blog-related firings, you clearly haven't been paying attention. Ever since corporate America began to embrace the productivity-enhancing benefits of Internet technologies, those same corporations have turned that embrace into a strangling death grip whenever their employees have sought to enjoy those technologies -- even on their own time, and their own dime.
As modern as today's corporations want you to think they are, when it comes to how they treat their employees, their instincts lean more to the lessons learned by Cleopatra's slave drivers at Pharaoh's School of Business and Pyramid Building.
The sad truth is that when it comes to things that employees might choose to do in the privacy of their own time, corporate America remains committed to the ''good old days'' when employees were seen and not heard, and certainly not read on the Internet. No, the absolute last thing tomorrow's aspiring CEO-wannabe needs is to have his or her bone-headedness chronicled for the world to see with a simple Google search.
That is especially true if the bone-head in question toils at Google.
Once a quirky, cool, and brashly self-confident start-up, many observers here in Silicon Valley have noted that Google is beginning to morph into that other, less-attractive creature of Silicon Valley: a bureaucracy in mid-bloat, whose worst qualities are becoming even more firmly entrenched than those good qualities which were responsible for the company's original success.
This trajectory is far too familiar for many Silicon Valley ventures, where the flush of money and the fawning of Wall Street-types, who had begun to fear that no company would ever be successful again, have caused the company's executives to begin believing their own hype.
Even before the IPO, Google's quirky coolness had begun to be replaced by a ''cooler-than-thou'' snootiness paired with an equally unattractive paranoid secrecy. Over the last year, I have met more than one engineer who was hesitant to even admit that they had taken jobs at Google. Heck, even when I was growing up in the Washington, DC area, my next door neighbor freely admitted to us that he was an analyst at the CIA!
When the Googlers are getting more prickly than real-live spooks, something has gone terribly wrong.
Having read what remains of Mr. Jen's blog about his two weeks at Google -- except, of course, for the parts that he voluntarily deleted at the direct request of his Google superiors just two days before his firing -- I can find nothing that Google should have taken offense to.
But, that's not the point.
You see, at a place like Google, Delta, Microsoft, or Friendster, you are not just an employee, you're family... like the Corleones. And if you run your mouth, you go for a boat ride on Lake Tahoe and you sleep with the fishes.
It may seem counterintuitive, but privacy is at the heart of this issue, even when we're talking about a public Weblog.
If you look at the history of privacy as a fundamental human right, part and parcel of that right is the freedom to be yourself and to grow into the person you want to be. Integral to that is being able to express yourself and to make choices about how you live your life, unfettered by unreasonable restrictions on your choices placed there by others.
Yet, it is hard to reach your full potential when you're constantly looking over your shoulder and hiding your true self under a bushel basket. All too often in the modern era, seemingly simple elements of one's life -- such as complaining about your boss -- become dramatically more complicated when you factor in today's technologically enabled environment of omnipresent surveillance and ubiquitous data collection.
Recognizing the importance of blogging -- and perhaps the importance of being able to sift through those blogs looking for juicy stuff -- Google bought one of the most popular blogging Websites, Blogger.com, in 2003. At the time of that purchase, Stephen Keating, a spokesman for the nonprofit research organization Privacy Foundation, suggested that folding blogs into the search expertise of Google was just one more sobering example of how the growing specter of massive searchable databases like Google's can reveal more about you than you might find comfortable.
''It's such a powerful search tool, it's hard to state what privacy on the Internet means anymore,'' Keating said at the time. ''It's like pulling a thread on a sweater: You can unravel all this information.''
In the old days, if you had a grievance, one of the few places it could be safely aired was at your local drinking establishment. There, in the dim and smoky corner, beer in hand, you were free to badmouth your boss, your boss's boss, and even the guy three cubes over with the crazy tie, until you were as blue in the face as Pabst's ribbon.
With the Internet era and the proliferation of ''cyber'' watering holes, there was a birth of freedom to speak your mind. But now that those venues are rife with spies and snitches in the form of fully indexed searches of your every utterance, the irony is that the neighborhood bar is still your best bet for being allowed to freely speak your mind. At least, that is, until Google finds a way to capture, archive, and sift through bar room conversations.
When availing yourself of the fruits of today's technology means that you must also submit to the scrutiny of anyone who can type your name into Google's search engine, you have to wonder whether some advances come at too high of a price.
For a growing number of bloggers, the unfortunate price of speaking their mind is that they now have a lot more free time in which to do it.
Ray Everett-Church is a principal with ePrivacy Group, a privacy and anti-spam consultancy. He is a founder of CAUCE, an anti-spam advocacy group, and he is co-author of ''Internet Privacy for Dummies.''