05/18/2010 04:06 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Noise Around How Social Networks Manage Our Privacy Matters

Rate your privacy settings. Take a day off from Facebook in protest. Do the "unthinkable" and quit Facebook all together. Over the last week, the Internet has erupted in international clamor over social networks and user privacy, with Facebook absorbing the brunt of the blowback due to its "Instant Personalization" features. Critics argue that none of these efforts will really effect any change. I argue that a lack of these efforts will bring about a change that few will realize their importance until it is too late.

Many people are familiar with laws surrounding privacy as they relate to criminal matters. A member of the general public has some semblance of where the government can and cannot go, in legal terms, the "reasonable expectation of privacy" that people have in certain places. In the civil context, when bad actors, or corporations, violate your privacy rights, we cannot necessarily turn to a dearth of Supreme Court cases and principles tested and applied on a daily basis. We must turn to tort law and privacy protections that were eroding before the word "Facebook" was even conceived.

Though it lacks the sex appeal of the Fourth Amendment, the law around individual privacy rights in the civil sense is determined by social norms and community standards. Parts of the legal tests around privacy protections include elements like "highly offensive to the reasonable person" and "of legitimate concern to the public." The reasonable person is not merely a legal fiction in this sense; YOU are the reasonable person. You are the public that decides what is of legitimate concern to it. If you say nothing about social networks making unilateral decisions about your privacy, you give the courts a green light, in the aggregate, to read that society has a laissez faire attitude towards information privacy online.

Another aspect of individual privacy rights has to do with who society would define as a public figure. The idea of who is a public figure is continually shifting, and the more public you are, the more privacy you lose. This may appear to be a "duh" statement, but is of critical importance in this Facebook debacle as we have all been forced to "go public." If we tacitly consent to being these new "public figures," good luck in enforcing our rights to individual privacy.

We will only retain the limited protections we have to privacy by making noise when our privacy rights as users of social networking platforms get violated. Silence is consent, and not just to Facebook, but to our legal system. This "stuff" actually matters. It is not just about someone's drunken foibles going public through a Google search. It has real, unintended consequences. "Everybody's doing it" is not just a cliché phrase; it is the basis of legal standards relating to privacy.

You may think that FacebookProtest,'s petition, Reclaim Privacy, or the other efforts that have popped up to voice discontent and provide privacy checks are measures sure to fall on deaf ears at Facebook.

My note of caution and a call to further action: Mark Zuckerberg is not our only audience.