Every man his own Big Brother! Room 101 in your pocket! Experience Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in the “privacy” of your own home! Incriminate yourself 24/7! Lose money, jobs, friends, housing, and your self-respect! Help mercenary corporations get rich!
I doubt that many people would willingly sign up for any service that touted itself in the manner above. And yet, according to Lori Andrews and her frightening new book, I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did, this is precisely what users of social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter — and even visitors to most retail, search, and reference web pages – are getting. Once held close to the chest and protected by well-understood laws, the valuable information about our lives that we blithely disclose with our every keystroke has the potential to be monetized by others and to turn around and bite us on the butt. Modern jurisprudence has failed to cope with the new intrusions and, what’s even worse, has actually come down against the individual’s rights.
A law professor by trade, Andrews lays out her case in a dense but logical and intelligible matrix of history, anecdotal examples, forecasts, and prescriptions for relief. This is not a pop-culture read. And her organizational method has a sly subtext: each chapter will deal with a single clause in what she dubs “The Social Network Constitution,” a foundational document for “the Facebook nation” displayed in all its utopian majesty at the end of this text.
Although the book’s cover image is that of an omniscient HAL 9000-type lens, Andrews’s remit is not really the surveillance state exemplified by ubiquitous CCTV cameras and drones, nor is government her major villain. She is primarily concerned with the information we give away to corporations and other shady characters when we work, play, or shop online. This assortment of data constitutes our online avatars, and Andrews shows how these second selves exist in virtual abusive slavery under the overt and covert rulers of the internet.
Chapter 1 sketches out the power and pervasiveness of social media networks. Chapter 2 outlines how our intimate data are harvested and, as shown in Chapter 3, aggregated to form informational portraits, true or false. The historical record of the law’s adjustment to new technology gets a closer look in Chapter 4. Beginning with Chapter 5, we start to examine the rights a citizen of Facebook Nation should have, under ideal — but nonetheless practical and achievable — conditions. And although some benchmarks are similar to those enshrined over two hundred years ago in America’s Bill of Rights, others are peculiar to the modern age: the right to connect; the right to control one’s image; the right to privacy of thoughts, emotions, and sentiments.
Throughout her arguments, Andrews employs scads of often horrific examples of things gone wrong, cases that demonstrably prove that our current system is just not working — or at least not working to the common person’s advantage. Many of these cases are famous, and will be familiar to the average reader. One example is that of Lori Drew, the mother who posed online as a teen boy and drove a teen girl to suicide. But other cases, less well known, are just as vivid and educational, and the amount of sheer spadework Andrews has put into her thesis is awe-inspiring, lending immense strength to the perceived rightness of her cause.
But this plethora of evidence centers almost exclusively on the USA, with a little bit of European data included. Because the internet is a global phenomenon, a little more attention to such unique national trends as the Chinese “human flesh search engine” brand of vigilante justice would not have been amiss, to provide supplementary insights into Andrews’s themes. In fact, internet vigilantism of all stripes is perhaps the one area that is under-reported by Andrews.
But all in all, this fine book is a highly effective and bracing clarion call to preserve and extend the liberties and protections that our pre-digital ancestors worked so hard to enshrine.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.