Thursday, February 28, 2008

'Cause I'm the Taxman: Facebook and the Revenue

Now my advice for those who die,
Declare the pennies on your eyes.
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.
- The Beatles

There's been a good deal of media coverage of the revelation by Evert Bopp that the Revenue is gathering information from Facebook and other social networking sites as part of its audits of individuals. There has been a tendency to present this as a privacy issue, leading to discussion of whether information on social networking sites should be treated as essentially in the public domain. This seems to me, however, to be the wrong way of looking at this question, not least because a definition of privacy remains elusive. Leaving privacy per se aside, are there other reasons why this sort of material should not be used?

There are, for me, at least two reasons. First, this material is often unreliable. As one Irish blogger demonstrated recently, it's quite easy to fake profiles in the name of others and to do so in a convincing way (Google cache). Consequently government agencies should be slow to use information derived in this way. Where they do so they should inform the individual concerned and offer an opportunity for that person to correct or challenge the material. (Something which would in any event be required by the Data Protection Rules.)

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this may lead to irrelevant criteria being used in a way which harms individuals. The legitimacy of bureaucracy is based, at least in part, on the impersonal application of general rules. Bureaucrats are not allowed to take other factors - such as the sexual orientation of the individual - into account, and indeed are expressly prohibited from inquiring about these factors. But where social networking profiles are being searched, it is likely that this principle may be undermined. For example, suppose that Blogger X is openly out on their blog. That is no business of the Revenue (for example) in dealing with him. But if an official is influenced by their search, we may find him being discriminated against in a way which would not have been likely otherwise.

Daniel Solove has considered some of the issues arising from what he describes as the "self exposure problem" in his fascinating new book The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet - the full text of which is now available online under a non-commercial CC licence. It's required reading for anyone interested in this area.

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