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Privacy Wanes When Bloggers are Muzzled

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Not since the day when the oar-chained slaves in the belly of Cleopatra'ssailing barge first learned that Her Majesty felt like waterskiing, havewe heard such a collective howl of anguish from ordinary working men andwomen as has arisen over the plight of Google employee Mark Jen.

Make that ''former'' Google employee.

It seems that less than two weeks after signing aboard at the darling ofSilicon Valley, which was fresh from its IPO and still quite full ofitself, Mr. Jen got himself summarily canned. His heinous crime? Hoggingthe creamer in the coffee room? Too much trash-talk at the foosballtable? Nope.

Mr. Jen was caught blogging!

The Jen firing is only the latest in a string of relativelywell-publicized cases of employers showing employees the door for thecrime of discussing their working lives on a public Weblog. Recentincidents include a Delta flight attendant who dared show a photo ofherself in uniform, a Microsoft employee who posted pictures of some newApple computers being delivered at his office, and someone called''Troutgirl'' who was a programmer at the social networking companyFriendster.

Troutgirl not withstanding, if you think there's something fishy aboutthese blog-related firings, you clearly haven't been paying attention.Ever since corporate America began to embrace the productivity-enhancingbenefits of Internet technologies, those same corporations have turnedthat embrace into a strangling death grip whenever their employees havesought to enjoy those technologies -- even on their own time, and theirown dime.

As modern as today's corporations want you to think they are, when itcomes to how they treat their employees, their instincts lean more to thelessons learned by Cleopatra's slave drivers at Pharaoh's School ofBusiness and Pyramid Building.

The sad truth is that when it comes to things that employees might chooseto do in the privacy of their own time, corporate America remainscommitted to the ''good old days'' when employees were seen and notheard, and certainly not read on the Internet. No, the absolute lastthing tomorrow's aspiring CEO-wannabe needs is to have his or herbone-headedness chronicled for the world to see with a simple Googlesearch.

That is especially true if the bone-head in question toils at Google.

Once a quirky, cool, and brashly self-confident start-up, many observershere in Silicon Valley have noted that Google is beginning to morph intothat other, less-attractive creature of Silicon Valley: a bureaucracy inmid-bloat, whose worst qualities are becoming even more firmly entrenchedthan those good qualities which were responsible for the company'soriginal 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 hadbegun to fear that no company would ever be successful again, have causedthe company's executives to begin believing their own hype.

Even before the IPO, Google's quirky coolness had begun to be replaced bya ''cooler-than-thou'' snootiness paired with an equally unattractiveparanoid secrecy. Over the last year, I have met more than one engineerwho 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 doorneighbor 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 thedirect 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 arenot just an employee, you're family... like the Corleones. And if you runyour mouth, you go for a boat ride on Lake Tahoe and you sleep with thefishes.

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, partand parcel of that right is the freedom to be yourself and to grow intothe person you want to be. Integral to that is being able to expressyourself and to make choices about how you live your life, unfettered byunreasonable restrictions on your choices placed there by others.

Yet, it is hard to reach your full potential when you're constantlylooking over your shoulder and hiding your true self under a bushelbasket. All too often in the modern era, seemingly simple elements ofone's life -- such as complaining about your boss -- become dramaticallymore complicated when you factor in today's technologically enabledenvironment of omnipresent surveillance and ubiquitous data collection.

Recognizing the importance of blogging -- and perhaps the importance ofbeing able to sift through those blogs looking for juicy stuff -- Googlebought one of the most popular blogging Websites, Blogger.com, in 2003. At the time of that purchase, Stephen Keating, a spokesman for thenonprofit research organization Privacy Foundation, suggested thatfolding blogs into the search expertise of Google was just one moresobering example of how the growing specter of massive searchabledatabases like Google's can reveal more about you than you might findcomfortable.

''It's such a powerful search tool, it's hard to state what privacy onthe Internet means anymore,'' Keating said at the time. ''It's likepulling 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 couldbe safely aired was at your local drinking establishment. There, in thedim 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 thosevenues are rife with spies and snitches in the form of fully indexedsearches of your every utterance, the irony is that the neighborhood baris 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 siftthrough bar room conversations.

When availing yourself of the fruits of today's technology means that youmust also submit to the scrutiny of anyone who can type your name intoGoogle's search engine, you have to wonder whether some advances come attoo high of a price.

For a growing number of bloggers, the unfortunate price of speaking theirmind 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.''

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