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Mar 9 2009   3:16PM GMT

Face-Off – Do you really have the right to expect privacy on the Internet?

Margaret Rouse Margaret Rouse Profile: Margaret Rouse

Privacy, the Internet and the workplace — should boundaries exist?

Dave McMahon and Margaret Rouse take sides on whether or not employees have the right to expect privacy on social networking sites.

Dave McMahon

“Be very careful of what you put on the Web. Anyone can see it.”

I hear these words over and over again. I go out with friends on Saturday evening and on Sunday morning I urgently call them and ask them not to tag certain pictures because I’m afraid that my boss will see them.

I’m lucky to have a good job and I would be foolish to risk it. It isn’t fair that I can’t let my friends post pictures of the fun time we had, or tell stories on my blog about our antics.

It’s unethical of my boss to browse my personal life and use it to judge me as a professional.

Twitter, professional blogs and even Facebook accounts are being recognized as useful resources among corporate teams — that is until I want to use my account for social purposes.

It becomes a professional trap when employers utilize the same forums to monitor social lives and take disciplinary or discriminatory action.

We don’t always choose which photos of us are tagged on Facebook and I find the intricacies of some Web 2.0 applications make it easy for private conversations to become public knowledge quickly and, often times, accidentally.

It is wrong to punish promising professionals for a conversation they thought was private.

Employers justify monitoring with claims that watching employee blogs or Facebook accounts is an excellent way to catch them in a lie. Last week’s “sick day” was actually spent on the beach with friends?

However, I think these practices create more problems than they solve — like mistrust and more dishonesty.

I believe these monitoring practices make a respectful and clearly understood separation between personal and professional lives nearly impossible.

Putting an end to these monitoring practices is the first step toward creating a more comfortable and more productive workplace.

Dave McMahon is an aspiring writer and literary professional. He is currently an Editorial Assistant at Tech Target while finishing a degree at Northeastern University.

Margaret Rouse

“You have zero privacy anyway. Just get over it.” – Sun Chairman Scott McNealy 1999

In 1993, the New Yorker published a cartoon by Peter Steiner. Two dogs were sitting in front of a computer workstation. One dog was sitting in a chair typing and the other dog was sitting on the floor. The dog that was typing turned and explained “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

The cartoon quickly became a classic, in part because the dog spoke the truth. In 1993, the Internet was anonymous. Nobody used their real name. Like with the CB radio fad of a generation before, early Internet adopters had handles — only this time around they were called screen names. We weren’t Bob Smith or Nancy Jones. We were Bulldog123 and ByteMe99.

What changed? The Internet evolved from a text-based medium to become a multi-media environment — and we started to shop on the Internet. And the dollars brought marketers. And marketers, who needed to see what we were doing on the Internet so they could market to us more effectively, brought cookies. And although some of made a fuss, most of us accepted their little bits of code, gladly trading privacy for a smoother user experience.

And then the Dot Com bubble burst. Which made us all get real. Literally.

Although the sock puppet from Pets Dot Com was looking for a new job, it was clear that the Internet itself wasn’t hurt. It just wasn’t a place for ByteMe99 anymore. The party was over.

Thankfully, a certain search engine’s growing popularity helped us adjust to using our real names. We even got a new verb out of it – googled. We googled our friends and business contacts and found there were benefits from using your real name. People could find you. You could find them. And then social networking sites came along and boosted the whole thing up a notch.

Today, everyone not only knows you’re a dog on the Internet – they know what breed of dog you are, how old you are, where you live and whether your master is a fan of “Ceasar’s Way” or “It’s Me or the Dog.”

Ok. I’m exaggerating. Maybe.

My point is that as the Internet matured and proved to be more than just an interesting diversion, it also became a public place. And because it’s public, there’s no such thing as privacy.

If you were at a football game and you spotted your boss across the field and didn’t want him to see you, you wouldn’t say “Hey, you can’t look at me because I’m not at work,” would you?

No. That would be ridiculous. Instead, you’d do what any normal person would do in that situation. You’d hide.

I’m not kidding.

How do you hide on the Internet? First, take the time to manage your privacy settings. Use private posts on Twitter. Limit what co-workers and friends of friends can see about you on Facebook. Uncheck the box that says anyone can tag you in photos or write on your wall. And don’t post anything that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times.

Or do what we all did back in 1999. Use a screen name for your personal networking. Because there’s no such thing as privacy on the Internet.

Margaret Rouse is a technical writer with more than twenty years experience.

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