Thursday 27 March 2008

Kids' web pages and employers' black books

While the media is harping on about a government-backed review of the classification of video games (BBC News: Video games face ratings overhaul), another - in my opinion more important - computer-related issue is being largely ignored.

The Childrens' Charities Coalition for Internet Safety is lobbying the government to take serious action against strange people looking at kids' social networking sites and gleaning info which can be used against the kids. Who, I hear you ask? Paedophiles? Cyber bullies? Conmen? How about potential employers and admissions tutors!

An open letter to Margaret Moran MP (linked to on the NCH information page) calls on the government to outlaw the practice of using information on private social-networking sites as a basis for deciding who to employ in a job or give a place on a university/college course. Quite rightly, too!

For some time, there has been a yuk-factor about strangers viewing online photos of young people, due to its (real or perceived) connotations with paedophilia. Yet, when a survey "appeared to show that one in five employers admitted that they used the internet to check on candidates" (according to the CCCIS letter mentioned), it seems that unwarranted viewing of text information can easily be as damaging to young people as viewing photos of them.

Not that employment blacklisting is anything new. Back in the 1980's, there was a shadowy organisation called the Economic League which used to keep files on 'political activists' so employers would know not to employ them. A number of large multinational companies, including banks, contributed to and used the services of the Economic League.

Fair enough, the Economic League was very different from social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Bebo - the Economic League deliberately damaged people's careers, whereas social networking sites do so accidentally, as a result of carelessness; either on their part or that of those who post their profiles there.

The aims of the CCCIS letter and campaign, namely stopping discrimination based on information posted while still at school, are aims which I support. However, maybe the focus on banning the use of such profiles to influence employment and admissions decisions, may make such a law difficult to enforce. Perhaps the emphasis should instead be on preserving the privacy of using such sites.

I think social networking sites should, by default, make all profiles and postings Private, unless the user him/herself expressly wishes to make them public. All sale to, or sharing of personal information with, other companies and organisations should be banned (who needs spam anyway??) All personal profiles and message groups should be kept out of the eye of search engines (easy enough to achieve by using robots.txt commands). All this is well within the means of the large social networking sites which are mainly used by young people; MySpace, for example, is largely owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International media empire.

While we're waiting for such measures to be implemented (and it may be a long wait), there are still things we can do to protect our own privacy. For more info, see the Information Commissioner's Office's Keeping your personal info personal section.

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