Losing Face(book)?

The Facebook stepped into trouble this week. It introduced two features, News Feed and Mini-Feed, that allowed users to track their friends’ activities. Join a group, post a photo or comment, break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or change your profile and Facebook would notify all of your friends. This is too much transparency even for Facebook users, who immediately protested the features. Within a few days a Facebook group, Students Against Facebook News Feeds, had over 600,000 members, press coverage, and the attention of Facebook’s creators. A Google News search of “facebook privacy protest” a few moments ago produced about 246 news outlet hits. See Facebook Feature Draws Privacy Concerns (NY Times), Facebook Changes Spark Protest (Times of London), Social website hit with privacy protest (Boston.com) for representative coverage.

A short time ago Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted a mea culpa of sorts on the Facebook homepage. It begins “we really messed this one up” and apologizes to users–not for News Feed and Mini-Feed themselves, but for the lack of control over their application. After “coding nonstop for two days” (I could probably retire on what they spent on Red Bull) Facebook rolled out new privacy controls, allowing users to determine which bits of personal news they wish to share with friends. So, for instance, a user could elect to notify friends of changes in relationship status and new wall posts, while withholding notice of profile changes and comments on photos. Zuckerberg hopes, no doubt, to defuse the storm and deflate a user boycott next Tuesday.

I’ll confess that I missed this story until a former privacy-law student grabbed me in Starbucks yesterday evening to tell me about it. He expressed amazement both at Facebook for springing this feature on its community, and at the passion of the protest. In my class last spring many students embraced Scott McNealy’s you-have-no-privacy-so-get-over-it posture. He was surprised and, I think, pleased that so many Facebook users did not roll over on this one.  Whether they were protesting a stalker-esque loss of their privacy, or dreading a deluge of trivial “news” about their friends, I don’t know.

Employees & abortion beliefs

Law.com recently reported on two employment cases involving terminations relating to the respective employee’s positions on abortion. They provide an interesting starting point for a discussion of employers’ right to terminate employees for personal beliefs.

In Curay-Cramer v. The Ursuline Academy of Wilmington, 2006 U.S. App. LEXIS 13956, (3rd. Cir. 2006) English teacher Michele Curay-Cramer sued Ursuline Academy, a private Wilmington, Delaware Catholic school, for employment discrimination under Title VII. The school fired Curay-Cramer after she signed her name to a newspaper advertisement supporting the legal right to an abortion on the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. The school’s principal told Curay-Cramer that she was “deeply troubled by her public support of a position inimical to accepted Catholic doctrine.”

Curay-Cramer relied in part on Title VII’s opposition clause: “It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any of his employees. . . because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter . . ..” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). She argued that the opposition clause “protects any employee who has had an abortion, who contemplates having an abortion, or who supports the rights of women who do so,” but the Third Circuit didn’t reach this argument in ruling for the employer. It held that Curay-Cramer failed to state a claim because her endorsement of the pro-choice advertisement was not a protected activity. “[P]ublic protests or expressions of belief” are not protected in themselves without connection to an employer’s alleged illegal employment practice.

This is what the advertisement said:

Thirty years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade guaranteed a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices. That right is under attack. We, the undersigned individuals and organizations, reaffirm our commitment to protecting that right. We believe that each woman should be able to continue to make her own reproductive choices, guided by her conscience, ethical beliefs, medical advice and personal circumstances. We urge all Delawareans and elected officials at every level to be vigilant in the fight to ensure that women now and in the future have the right to choose.

The court stated that the advertisement can’t be construed to comment on the school’s alleged policy of termination the employment of women who have had, contemplated having, or support the right to have an abortion.

In the other (the article provides no citation) a Wisconsin federal district court upheld Wal-Mart’s termination of a Roman Catholic pharmacist who refused to fill birth control prescriptions. The pharmacist, Neil Noesen, argued that the termination violated his First Amendment right to free exercise of his religious beliefs. The court disagreed, holding that Wal-Mart reasonably accommodated Noesen’s belief by assigning other pharmacists to fill birth-control prescriptions and stating, according to the article, that saying Noesen “went too far by putting customers who called about birth control on hold indefinitely and by refusing to get service for those who showed up in person.”

(Shannon P. Duffy, 3rd Circuit Denies Fired Teacher’s Suit Over Support for Abortion Rights, The Legal Intelligencer, 06-08-2006; Ryan J. Foley, Federal Judge Dismisses Suit by Pharmacist Who Refused to Dispense Birth Control, The Associated Press, 06-05-2006)

Net Neutrality – Why Care?

The Berkman Center’s June 2006 Filter contains an article titled Net Neutrality, Tech Mandates, and Pop Culture in which Wendy Seltzer argues that net neutrality is a necessary ingredient for the creation of “public created culture.” She cites a number of forces that threaten the creative environment including limitations on hardware, restrictive content licensing agreements, and erosion of Internet neutrality. She notes that changes in technology and law that protect current business models can cause collateral damage: “[D]igital editing and conversion technology is dual-use. Copying “Lost” might be infringement, or it might be a political statement, mixing the mysterious island footage with that of a bumbling political leadership . . . If entertainment companies get their wishes, new hardware and software won’t be able to generate that kind of statement.” (Emphasis Added)

Thinking about how to teach this subject I wondered: How does one convey the issues lumped under the “net neutrality” label to those who don’t read The Filter? What does it take to interest everyday Internet users? A start requires answering questions raised by this excerpt:

1. What specific hardware restrictions, content licensing terms, and current or proposed legislation would eliminate creation of this type of statement?
2. How, specifically, do/would they affect the creative environment?
3. How does Internet neutrality foster the creative environment?
4. Why does it matter whether someone can create a “Lost” mashup? What values does such creativity serve?

I’m not critical of Seltzer–obviously her short article is written for a specific audience that likely has answers to these questions.